Thursday, May 14, 2009

Review: "Angels and Demons"

Tom Hanks' hair is sleeker, shorter and just plain less ridiculous. The movie, too.

"Angels & Demons" is the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code," which managed to be both controversial and lackluster. Hanks, as symbologist Robert Langdon, wore a ridiculous swoopy hairdo that made Wolverine's coiffure look tame, plus a perpetually glum expression as he uncovered nefarious plots by the Catholic Church.

Actually, "Angels" was written by author Dan Brown before "Da Vinci" and takes place earlier, too, but director Ron Howard and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman neatly sidestep that issue, rejiggering the timeline so that Langdon is ostracized by the church because he aired their dirty laundry.

This time, though, they need his help. The ancient order of Illuminati, a group of scientists persecuted by the church, has vowed to destroy Vatican City and everyone in it. The cardinals are all in conclave to elect a new pope, but four of them have been kidnapped. One will die each hour, publicly, until at midnight a device containing antimatter will detonate, killing the thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square to witness the election of a new pontiff.

At first, it seems that "Angels" will fall into the same trap that "Da Vinci" did, lulling into a seemingly endless churn of exposition and setup. But after 45 minutes or so, the chase through Rome's historical sites and legends takes on real urgency, and genuine horror as the holy men are put to very gruesome deaths one by one. (The film is rated PG-13, but is one of the "hardest" PG-13s I've ever seen.)

Langdon's partner is Vittorio Vitra (Ayelet Zurer), an Italian physicist who discovered the antimatter and is brought in to help recover it. Opposing them is Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of the Swiss Army detachment that guards the pope, who views Langdon disdainfully and accuses him of anti-religious bias.

More helpful is Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the carmelengo -- the chief aid to the Pope who temporarily holds the power of that office until conclave is concluded. The carmelengo is forthright in acknowledging past oppression by the church, and wants to let the world know about the current threat against it. But the young priest is overruled by Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who's in charge of running the conclave and seems to be angling for the top job himself.

The film version diverges in numerous ways from the book, although most of them are minor details, such as changing the carmelengo from Italian to Irish, and making the scientist whose murder opens the film Vittoria's colleague rather than her father. There are a few events toward the end that are changed more monumentally, but they are unobjectionable as they tend to streamline the action as it builds toward the climax.

It's doubtful that even the most educated audience members will be able to follow the dizzying assault of details thrown at them -- Biblical stories, names of artists and scientists, little-known chapels and monuments that form the pieces of the puzzle that lead Langdon to the lair of the Illuminati.

Ultimately, though, it's the chase rather than the history lesson that makes "Angels & Demons" compelling, and something "The Da Vinci Code" was not: Fun.

3 stars

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