Religious right 

Angels & Demons thrills where Da Vinci didn’t

With the exception of genuine head-scratchers like The Pink Panther 2 (can anyone explain—given Steve Martin’s crimes against Peter Sellers and the rest of humanity as Inspector Clouseau, as well as the first remake’s dismal critical and tepid box-office record—how the hell the thing got made?), movie sequels fall into one of two categories: those that follow an unexpectedly strong original (Aliens, Terminator 2), and those that simply have an air of inevitability independent of the quality of the initial product (any link in popular horror-flick chains or any of the last three Star Wars movies).

The existence of Angels & Demons in cinematic form can in no way be attributed to the creative and popular momentum of its predecessor. In The Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks somehow managed to turn Dan Brown’s wildly popular page-turner into a plodding, confused wreck, a movie so devoid of impact that the Catholic Church looked a bit foolish in its strenuous early objections to the controversial subject matter.

The church makes no such mistake this time, as it has officially remained mum about Angels & Demons—though Howard and Hanks have both made remarks about Vatican-sized bumps allegedly created by the church in the movie’s shoot schedule on location in Rome. And despite the fact that Angels & Demons is a far more efficient vehicle for Brown’s story and style, there really is no reason for the church to worry. In some ways, this movie is so pro-church it could be construed as an apology of sorts.

Hanks is back as American professor and religious symbologist Robert Langdon, who once again gets ripped out of his domestic life and thrown into a whirlwind holy mystery overseas. This time (though Brown wrote and set Angels & Demons before The Da Vinci Code, Howard rearranged the chronology) he’s stuck in Rome, but with nearly the entire tale unfolding in the span of 24 hours, the dramatic impetus keeps the movie unfolding at a breakneck pace never realized by the first one.

Helping the cause is the decision by Howard and his screenwriters to simplify the book’s major plot points as the movie progresses, adding just enough detail and character development in the early going to set everything up, and then backing off as the action carries the story to its robust finale and respectable denouement. As a result of this approach, one of the most interminable aspects of the first movie—an incessant reliance on clumsy dialogue to convey background information—is largely (though not completely) avoided.

Langdon is a far more compelling character this time around. Hanks plays him with a bit more of an edge, an effort supported by a nifty costume-change wrinkle in which Langdon dons the black suit of an extremely stylish priest (sans collar, which Langdon removes with a knowing look in the mirror) and cuts a dashing figure through the latter half of the flick. The interplay between Langdon’s blatant agnosticism and the fervent beliefs of the world he navigates is handled splendidly here as well, punctuated by his pitch-perfect reply to the Big Question at a key moment in the movie.

Angels & Demons does have its share of issues. Langdon’s sleuthing companion and love/lust interest is not nearly the catastrophe it was in The Da Vinci Code, but Ayelet Zurer, as drop-dead sexy as she is, still feels like pasted-on eye candy as the Italian physicist Vittoria Vettra. Howard juices up the sequel’s look with a fair share of whiz-bang camera work and for the most part successfully uses a fire/smoke visual theme, though at times those efforts border on the histrionic. And streamlined though it is, the plot veers too often into the completely implausible and thus keeps the viewer from ever really buying into the story wholesale.

Still, this is a serviceable thriller and a giant improvement on the first go-round. Fittingly, controversy did find the movie when Swedish actor Stellan Skarsgård, who holds a significant role in the film as the head of the pope’s personal security detail, candidly characterized Dan Brown as “a terribly bad writer” with a knack for keeping the reader hooked: “It’s like eating peanuts at a bar,” he said. “You don’t like them, but you keep on eating them anyway.”

That’s praise by damnation, to be sure, but it sure beats the alternative. With a revamped run at Brown’s work, Howard may have pulled this franchise out of the vortex created by The Da Vinci Code, a movie that resembled the slag from a bartender’s spill pad more than an addictive tavern treat.

Angels & Demons continues at the Carmike 10 and Village 6.
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