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Is it wrong that I suddenly think slightly less of my parish priest because I’ve never seen him fly a helicopter?  After watching director Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, I think the Vatican ought to make aviation training a requirement of the priesthood along with that whole celibacy thing.

What was originally the prequel to the smashing success, The Da Vinci Code, is transfigured into its sequel and follows Brown’s Gary Stu avatar, Robert Langdon, into a new religious adventure/round of Catholic finger-pointing.  Someone is killing the great cardinals of Europe: Taking place in the days after the death of a pontiff (John Paul II isn’t specifically named), when the College of Cardinals converges on Vatican City.  The rite of Conclave demands the holy men be sealed into a chamber inside the Sistine Chapel, literally enclosing themselves for deliberations as to who the next Pontifex Maximus will be.  It is during this moment of ancient ritual that a madman decides to employ the most modern technology to destroy the Holy See.  All clues point to the involvement of the Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society of movers and shakers who advocated science over religion, thus becoming an enemy of the Catholic Church.  It’s these clues that have the Vatican bringing American symbologist Robert Langdon to the altar, not only to find a quad of Cardinals kidnapped by the culprit, but to locate an antimatter bomb meant to bring heaven a lot closer to Vatican City.

As in the original novel, Langdon does a miraculous job of picking-up the most elaborately laid breadcrumbs ever known to man.  The series of lucky coincidences and incredible leaps in logic laid at Langdon’s feet are almost laughable.  Yet, the incredibly high production values and earnestness with which Angels and Demons tackles its patently preposterous twists are nearly impossible not to go with, if, for no other reason, to find out how far believability can be stretched.  What that leaves us is a very good looking, very dumb popcorn movie.

Howard got a stunning cast of actors to give his film far more gravity than it deserves; starting with Tom Hanks’ return as Robert Langdon, this time in a much more civilised hairpiece than the unfortunate badger that expired on top of his head in The Da Vinci Code.  Hanks is much more charismatic than the written Langdon and he seems stifled playing this character who isn’t exactly a ball of personality.  Even Hanks’ natural comedic timing couldn’t help the abundance of allegedly witty lines that fell out of the air like a thud.  Stellan Skarsgård plays the head of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican’s official military force.  Wielding a skeptical sneer, Skarsgård gets one of the few intentional laughs of the film expressing his sarcastic joy that all will be well because “the symbologist is here.”  Armin Mueller-Stahl portrays a cardinal whose ambitions may or may not be the stuff of bad paperback novels … Oh, wait.  Lastly is Renton Wan-Kenobi, himself, Ewan McGregor as the late Pope’s right-hand man Camerlengo McKenna, a devoted young prelate who must’ve gone to the same seminary as G.I. Joe.

Those last three actors all rather obviously make up the movie’s rogues’ gallery and Howard lays out the evidence for suspicion with a trowel.  All the finesse in Angels and Demons was saved for its visuals and what lovely ones they are. It’s hard to go wrong with Roman scenery, and cinematographer Salvatore Totino does a lovely job of capturing its dilapidated grandeur, scenes of gathered cardinals inside the faux-Vatican look like paintings, even the ghastly sight of an unfortunate victim being burnt alive is breathtaking.  Howard gets good use out of Brown’s details of Catholic ritual, showing us the mysterious ceremonies no one outside of Vatican walls will ever see.  Say what you will, Catholicism is one fabulous looking religion with unbeatable production values that must be cinematic paradise for a director to film.  Despite an awkwardly inserted stem-cell protest, Howard gives an even keel to Brown’s Catholic-bashing instincts by not straying any further than the research derived from the story and actually makes an unexpected pitch on the side of faith, despite his lead character’s espoused Atheism.  Hans Zimmer’s Exorcist-on-steroids score captures all the pomp due its surroundings.  So much going for it, yet it’s still so pulpishly bad – which doesn’t mean it’s not occasionally a fun thing to watch –  Ayelet Zurer’s constant breathless agitation as the scientist responsible for the antimatter bomb is hilarious.  Some of the dialogue is 1950’s B-movie bad, including an exchange way too late into the film when an inspector, aghast that the killer might be right under their Roman noses, asks, “Is it conceivable the Illuminati have infiltrated the Swiss Guard?” Langdon quips “Why wouldn’t it be?” He refrains from referring to the detective by his official title, Captain Obvious.  In one of the most dim-witted climaxes in movie history; the helicopter scene and its aftermath had me in stitches.  Clearly, that’s not what Howard was going for; staking his action sequences out with all sincerity, but even those are hit and miss, with any tension utterly non-existent, but for one or two moments watching the killer dispatch his prey.

In the end we’re back to a mindless popcorn chomper; a dumb, gorgeous thing with a (mostly) fabulous cast.  Still, for all the money and cinematic credentials pouring out of every scene, one would have expected more.  For what it’s worth, Angels and Demons is far more enjoyable than its zillion-dollar sire, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually any good. 



~ The Lady Miz Diva

May 14th, 2009





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