May 14, 2009

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Angels & Demons (PG-13)
Tom Hanks and some tamer hair go on a scavenger hunt through Rome in Angels & Demons, the giddy prequel/sequel/whatever to The Da Vinci Code.

Technically, Angels & Demons the book came out before The Da Vinci Code the book. The movie let’s you have it either way — Robert Langdon (Hanks) could be a symbologist who most recently tangled with the Catholic Church about the whole Jesus’-secret-family issue or he simply could have cheesed them with his pestering requests to dig through their library of priceless texts to research his not-entirely-church-friendly academic works. Either way, the Vatican and its many accented and somberly dressed investigators turn to him after a scientist priest is killed, his dangerous invention is stolen, and four cardinals (of whom one is likely to replace the recently deceased pope) are kidnapped from Vatican City. These crimes are connected by a threatening letter which — chockablock with references to various historic locations and ye olden feuds — explains in metaphor that it will kill the kidnapped cardinals one by one over the next few hours and then destroy Vatican City once and for all at midnight.

And how? Anti-matter, my friends. A oozy little blob of antimatter. (Spock really needs to keep better track of that stuff.)
Because a pretty dark-eyed smarty-pants must always accompany Langdon on these investigations, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), partner to the dead scientist, plays doubles with Langdon in the game of who-can-spot-the-ancient-symbol. As with any good oddball procedural — House, Fringe, The Closer — the first guess about where or who is always a little off and the powers that be drag their feet in recognizing the brilliance of our unconventional team. The villainy here is attributed to the Illuminati, delivering a destructive tag-back centuries after the Church murdered many of its members.

Criticizing the nonsensical plot points and over-heated dialogue that fill this beach-read of a movie seems unnecessarily scoldy, like someone who spends the first nice day of summer lecturing people about the evils of water bottles and the dangers of skin cancer. Sure, there are some “serious” moments when instead of thinking “oooo, unexpected twist!” I chuckled. And, OK, Armin Mueller-Stahl’s performance — as one of the cardinals locked up in the conclave that is going on inside the Vatican while our heroes scurry about Rome — is kind of ridiculous when you look back on it from the end of the movie. But it’s deliciously ridiculous, much like the performances of Ewan McGregor (a priest who was a personal assistant to the recently dead pope and is a kind of place-holder for the pope while the cardinals pick a new leader) and Stellan Skarsgard, who plays the head of the Swiss Guard (the fellows in the floppy hats who guard the Vatican). Angels & Demons makes up for what it lacks in sense-making with fun-having. It is exactly the kind of “dun dun DUN”-filled mystery that The Da Vinci Code was but it has picked up the pace and has cut the exposition (and there’s still plenty of exposition) into easily digestible bite sizes that it scatters throughout (instead of putting the movie on pause to give a little history lecture). Even at two-plus hours the movie feels breezy and light. And while I suppose I can understand that some church officials might have a problem with the movie (because “some church officials” are bound to have a problem with any given movie), I would like to point out that the media come off looking far more clueless than the church. This would seem to be the kind of flashy suspense story that even the more fun-loving church faithful could get behind.

I’m sure plenty of “better” movies will hit the screens this summer, just as they did last summer, but few will be as luxuriously untaxing or as wonderfully silly. B

Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material. Directed by Ron Howard and written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman (from the Dan Brown novel), Angels & Demons is two hours and 10 minutes long and will open in wide release on Friday, May 15. The movie is distributed by Sony Pictures.