Angels & Demons

Movies Reviews Tom Hanks
Angels & Demons

Release Date: May 15

Director: Ron Howard

Writer: David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, Dan Brown (novel)

Cinematographer: Salvatore Totino

Starring: Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgård

Studio/Run Time: Sony Pictures, 138 mins.

Having it both ways in a film that’s more thrilling than thoughtful

Everyone’s favorite symbologist Robert Langdon is back in Angels & Demons, the sequel to the inane Da Vinci Code. With a new haircut and graying temples Tom Hanks looks even more like an insurance agent, but don’t let his unassuming nature fool you. He’s more active and focused this time, and with an impulsive, attractive physicist at his side—one who can read Latin, perform CPR, and explain antimatter to laymen—no wild goose could best him in a chase. And these wild geese want very much to be chased.

When the film opens, the Pope has died. Someone is killing, one by one, the men who would ascend to the highest office in worldwide Catholocism, although sometimes the killing seems secondary to the puzzle building. This killer is the Will Shortz of sacrilege and death, but only a fool would think he’s acting alone. He brands each victim with a symbol of the Illuminati in seeming revenge for ancient wrongs—hence the need for a symbologist who’s part Sherlock Holmes, part Indiana Jones.

Angels & Demons is better than The Da Vinci Code in every way but one: It has no Ian McKellen. But given how they treated his character in the first film, it’s probably best that they not think of an equally harebrained way to bring him back. The new film is more fun and exciting, and while it requires steadfast suspension of disbelief, it isn’t quite so dumb. The first film felt like a heavy-handed stab in the direction of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but this time the filmmakers seem to expect that certain scenes may remind us of Indy’s torch-lit descents into dark passages. Just when we think we know what’s going to happen in the underground Vatican archives, because we saw Indy break through a snake wall by toppling a giant statue, the film throws us a loop, displaying more wit and ingenuity than could reasonably be expected from a film directed by Ron Howard and based on a novel by Dan Brown.

Not that the film is consistently ingenious. Indiana Jones had personality quirks that weren’t directly a part of the plot, and I’m convinced that Jaws is so fondly remembered precisely because of all the time it spends on personalities. By contrast, Angels & Demons provides details only if they propel us toward a specific revelation. An offhand anecdote about how someone learned to fly helicopters is sure to be important before the film is over, just as a strangely shaped keyhole will undoubtedly be engaged by a strangely shaped key, probably one found in the hand of a dead man.

But I’m impressed with the way Howard and crew have built and sustained a theme of science versus religion. In the first film, fear of controversy produced dialogue that sounded like a committee hashed it out. The new film includes similar diplomacy, always seeking a balance between religion and science, but the sensitivity feels far less Fletcherized; each scene is moderately shaped instead of chewed into mush.

It’s moderate, but not subtle. When a priest whose chest has been branded with an ancient ambigram lies dying before our hero and his sidekick, the intrepid physicist attempts pulmonary resuscitation, but it causes blood to spew into the face of our agnostic symbologist, baptizing him reluctantly in the blood of … well just the blood of a near-pope, but the symbolism is clear. Howard lingers to let it sink in. Then, as if to sock the viewer in the chin once more, the man finds that his only option for a fresh shirt and jacket are the priestly vestments hanging in the john.

Those are the sort of clothes more comfortably worn by a young up-and-coming priest played by Ewan McGregor, and when his rag-doll body goes whipping against the outside of a building for reasons I can’t divulge, he’s clearly on his way to either martyrdom or the papacy, having been anointed by special effects, ordained by deus ex machina, and blessed beneath a Spielbergian purple sky. But the filmmakers, fully understanding that they’ve created those expectations, send their plot ricocheting with surprising giddiness.

These are heavy but welcome flourishes for one of America’s blandest filmmakers, and they recall Martin Scorsese’s thoughtful baptisms of Nicolas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead. Together the two films, one an action thriller in religious garb and the other a downbeat consideration of public service and ministry, give the false impression that cinema will always face a dilemma: to satisfy audience expectations or to probe real ideas about the human condition. It’s the rare film (Hitchcock’s Rear Window comes to mind) that can twist real ideas into an edge-of-your seat sensation. Howard’s film doesn’t accomplish that, but it’s a decent thriller. His angels and demons may dance at arms length, but at least they’re in sync with the music.

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