Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rome Is Gonna Blow!

Angels & Demons:
3 out of 4

In my review of 2006's "The Da Vinci Code," I remarked that it was painfully lukewarm, a novel-to-screen adaptation that fell flat on its face. It lacked any spark, excitement, or anything relating to that of emotion. Thank goodness, then, that director Ron Howard learned his lesson in time for his adaptation of "Angels & Demons," the novel that Dan Brown actually wrote before "The Da Vinci Code." As a movie, it's marketed to be a sequel to the 2006 dud, and rightfully so because it's relievedly better than its predecessor. Howard ditches the leadenness and pumps this sequel with hectic energy, letting the 140-minute running time zip by surprisingly fast. And as added bonuses, Tom Hanks ditched his awful hairstyle of previously, and there's no more Audrey Tautou being awkward and out of her element.

Harvard professor and symbolist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is back and gets recruited by a representative of the Catholic Church to help a crisis occurring at the Vatican. No hard feelings about basically debauching their entire belief system in Langdon's last outing. The Pope has died, and the College of Cardinals has been gathered in order to choose the Pope's successor. The problem is that the preferati, the favorites to be elected, have all been kidnapped, and behind it all is a very old, secret society, the Illuminati, that is seeking revenge on the Catholic Church from the days when it used to persecute thinkers of science. Earlier, a gorgeous and capable scientist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) was working with something called anti-matter, a substance that does very special stuff and has something to do with the moment of creation, or something really epic like that. Anyway, it got stolen from the lab and is now being used alongside the Illuminati threats. Each kidnapped preferati will each be executed individually at 8, 9, 10, and 11 p.m. And then at midnight, the capsule containing the anti-matter will run out of battery and blow all of the Vatican to smithereens.

Got all that? Great. OK, so, what does all of this have to do with Robert Langdon? Well, he has knowledge of Illuminati symbols that leads him and his team on a wild goose chase through Rome looking for certain clues, statues, symbols, anything, that could lead to the next location. Langdon has uncanny luck as he's never wrong, never misses a step, and spews out his knowledge so fast that we as an audience barely have time to catch it. We just have to take his word for it that he's right. Turns out he is 100% of the time. Perfect. Potential sexual tension between Langdon and Vittoria? No time for it. All she can do is nod, agree, follow him around, and translate some Latin. Howard has taken the laborious movements of "The Da Vinci Code" and kicked it into breakneck speed, which is what makes this sequel work.

Langford gets assistance from the faithful Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), the short-fused Swiss Guard commander (Stellan SkarsgÄrd), and the head Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), all of whom hold expressions that shift to make it unclear at times whether they're good, bad, or who the hell knows, maybe both. All of these supporting characters are meant to lead the audience astray as to knowing which side is the most morally sound one to choose.

The twists are bountiful, especially at the movie's climax, to get the full feeling of being an over-exploded, self-serious blockbuster, which it entirely is. It's totally preposterous, too, but it might as well be. Ron Howard knows this, and he keeps it cruising right along with an effectively pounding score from Hans Zimmer. The production values are through the roof, and there are some splendid sequences including a nerve-racking escape out of the Vatican archives from a sealed-off library after the oxygen supply has been cut off. Oh, and there's something to be said about the commingling of science and religion. "Angels & Demons" glosses over that, however, and doesn't make any bold statements on the matter because, really, why bother?

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