Not since “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (or “Addams Family Values” for that matter) have I walked into a sequel with the full confidence of knowing it would be better than the original. “The Da Vinci Code” was an amazingly boring snooze of a movie which ended up generating a lot of needless controversy. Seeing Catholics react so harshly to this adaptation of Dan Brown’s bestselling novel made it seem like they were about to witness a long delayed sequel to “The Last Temptation of Christ.” But in the end, the story, while clever, was clearly fiction and to take it so seriously was ridiculous. Maybe “The Da Vinci Code” wasn’t as terrible as many made it out to be, but considering the A-list talent involved, it seemed worse in retrospect. Yet it made a gazillion bucks at the box office, so God forbid that the movie studio stops the money train there.
The question here is how much better “Angels & Demons” is than its predecessor. The same creative team that brought the first Dan Brown novel to the big screen, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to name a few, are back and have appeared to have taken the criticism from their first go around with Professor Robert Langdon to heart and have made a much more exciting film. At the same time, it suffers from the same problem as the first movie (and Hanks’ character said it best) in that it is all a bunch of “hooey.”
Dan Brown’s book of “Angels & Demons” is actually a prequel to the events of “The Da Vinci Code,” but the filmmakers decided instead to treat this as a sequel to that aforementioned bestseller. This also is due to many people not getting around to reading the “Angels & Demons” novel until they discovered or heard about “The Da Vinci Code.”
We meet up with Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) who has been asked to come to the Vatican in regards to a kidnapping situation that threatens to become catastrophic beyond words. It seems that someone has stolen some antimatter (something I thought only existed in “Star Trek”) from a science lab, and it has now landed in the hands of a group known as the Illuminati; a secret organization from within the church that the leaders have tried to keep under warps for decades. But with time running out, the subjects of science and religion, while diametrically opposed to one another, will have to find a way to deal with each other in order to save their insulated society from complete annihilation.
Reading the book before seeing this movie will help get you through a lot of the mumbo jumbo Hanks’ symbologist character ends up espousing. It’s not entirely necessary, but it sure would have helped me in terms of describing of what the hell is going on here. In the end, this is essentially a ticking time bomb thriller a la “24.” So even if you can’t make heads or tails of what’s taking place, you will be caught up in the immediacy of the situation, and that’s what kept me going through the movie. It is never boring, and it does not get too hung up on issues the way “The Da Vinci Code” did. All you need to know that a bomb will go off if the good guys can’t stop it in time.
I guess only an actor like Hanks could pull off a character like this. His work as Professor Robert Langdon will not go down as one of his best roles, and it is not close to being on the same level of his tremendous work in “Forrest Gump” or “Saving Private Ryan.” But Hanks’ does give a good dose of believability to the goings on here, and he as an actor has been around long enough to where we don’t have much of a reason to doubt him. But as he goes on, I cannot help but wonder how many other possible disasters could have been prevented had Professor Langdon have gained more access to the Vatican archives. Langdon seems to have more knowledge of the Catholic Church than its elders do. Oh yes, his hair looks a lot better in this one also. If only Robert had more respect for religion and didn’t go around unintentionally pissing the Catholics. It’s not like he ripped up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” for crying out loud!
Hanks’ partner in all things religiously sound or unsound is Ayelet Zurer (I’m sure I will be able to pronounce her name someday), an Israeli actress who has previously appeared in films like “Vantage Point” and “Munich.” She plays Vittoria Vetra, a scientist who helped a fellow colleague of hers in creating authentic antimatter that ends up being stolen, and she follows along with Professor Langdon in an attempt to recapture it before it is used for the most devastating of purposes. Ayelet and her character are much more alive here than Audrey Tatou (so wonderful in “Amelie”) was in the previous film. She is fun to watch here as she holds her own with Tom Hanks.
“Angels & Demons” is also populated with the most reliable of character actors such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter, a chief detective in the Vatican police force who may or may not be trustworthy. Also co-starring is the great Armin Mueller-Stahl who plays Cardinal Strauss, and his role is like many he has played throughout these last few years. Armin is basically the Yoda of this movie, espousing wise beliefs that are not easily broken or changed, and Armin plays the role in a way few others can. You cannot expect anything less than great work from these two actors.
But the movie’s best performance in my opinion belongs to Ewan McGregor who plays Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, a man who holds temporary power over the church after the passing of the Pope. Ewan, after all these years, has really proven to be one of the most underrated actors working in movies today, and he gives his role a passionate fire that “Angels & Demons” desperately needs throughout. While Ewan may have been defanged a bit (as many actors were) from those “Star Wars” prequels, he has been in many other movies before and after that which show he is no mere flash in the pan of an actor. On top of “Trainspotting,” he has also done excellent work in movies like “Moulin Rouge,” even if he was eclipsed by the brilliant Nicole Kidman. Without McGregor’s performance in this movie, this movie would have lacked a real heart and a soul, and it would have merely existed just as a ticking time bomb movie with no real feeling.
“Angels & Demons,” however, was undone by a totally unnecessary twist ending that came right out of left field and called into question everything that preceded it. I don’t know if that same ending is in the book or not (I haven’t read it), but it just felt tacked on and how it all came about was way too convenient for me to buy into. As a result, I went out of the movie theater scratching my head as if to say, “what the frak?!” Were it not for that ending, I might have been able to give “Angels & Demons” a more positive review, but even Scooby Doo would have had a hard time buying into the switch that occurs. No Scooby snacks would have made him feel better about it either. Feel free to see it for yourself, and let me know what you think of it.
Ron Howard just got off of one of his best movies as a director with “Frost/Nixon,” and I certainly did not expect this one to be as good. However, it is clear that he has improved on the gaping flaws that more than undermined Professor Robert Langdon’s last adventure in all things Catholic. Ron keeps the movie going at a steady pace, and it does not lag for too long in spots. It is an entertaining movie that kept me involved, and that’s even though the movie itself is not entirely special or unique in its genre. In the end, “Angels & Demons” is kind of an average movie done by a great group of people. It does not stand out in its genre, but it gets the job done to where moviegoers won’t be complaining too much.
There’s no doubt that there will be another Robert Langdon adventure in the future with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks on board, and I bet they will top this even one with what they come up with next.
**1/2 out of ****