Angels and Demons Video Review

Angels and Demons (2009)
Directed by Ron Howard
138 mins. PG-13

* * ½

We recently caught Angels and Demons on video, a film we ducked when first released because of mediocre reviews and better theater options at the time. So what’s the verdict? The film is set in Vatican City and the Italians have a perfect phrase for it: cosi cosa, an idiomatic expression that roughly translates “so so.”

Here’s what we learned from seeing Angels and Demons. Dan Brown knows how to write a thriller and Ron Howard knows how to direct action, but Brown doesn’t translate very well on the screen and Howard doesn’t know how to hire good screenplay writers or get great performances out of actors. The film and book are widely viewed as sequels to Brown’s blockbuster hit The Da Vinci Code, though Brown actually wrote Da Vinci Code three years after Angels and Demons and the latter’s plot, though complex, is a more conventional murder mystery that should’ve worked better on film than Da Vinci Code.

It does, but only marginally so. As in The Da Vinci Code, Angels calls upon Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a Harvard symbologist, to decode Roman Catholic mystical practices linked to an unsavory past. In this case, a bit of anti-matter has been stolen from the Swiss scientists who created it, and all fingers point to the Illuminati, an 18th century secret society banned by the Vatican—in part for its embrace of Enlightenment ideals—and thought to be extinct. The stakes are high; a popular pope has just died, cardinals have convened to elect his successor, the top four candidates have been kidnapped, and the Illuminati has threatened to kill one per hour until midnight, at which time they will allow the antimatter “God particle” to come into contact with matter, thereby blowing all of Vatican City and much of Rome to the sweet hereafter. It is up to Langdon to unravel arcane clues concerning the four elements of ancient science (Earth, Air, Fire, and Water) and prevent murder and a smaller scale Big Bang. And it’s up to the Vatican’s acting administrator, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), to decide whether to break the cardinals’ convocation and evacuate St. Peter’s. Each man has his counsel, Langdon’s is Vittoria Vetra (Ayelat Zurer), who created the God particle, and McKenna’s is Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), a man of simple faith and strong will. With these parameters established and a maniacal killer loose, Angels and Demons becomes a classic beat-the-clock thriller.

The Da Vinci Code was criticized by some as an attack on Catholic theology; in Angels the attack on the church is literal and more care is taken to see faith in a positive light. In the end it doesn’t really matter much because neither film version comes close to providing the excitement of the books. One problem is Hanks; he is positively wooden as Langdon and thereby unconvincing as either a scholar or a detective. Zurer is assuredly better than was Audrey Tatou in Da Vinci Code, but there are no sparks between her and Hanks, hence there’s not much for her to do except get in harm’s way. In fact, of all the film’s central characters, only the wily Mueller-Stahl turns in a strong performance.

Howard’s direction is strong when filming action and special effects sequences, but his inability to give characters depth or coax good performances from his actors exposes major logic errors that were less noticeable in the book. What are the odds, for instance, of unraveling each clue at exactly two minutes before a cardinal is to be executed? Why does Vetra, a nuclear scientist, suddenly possess a knowledge of symbols that rivals Langdon’s? Why would an assassin shown to be completely amoral choose not to kill Langdon and Vetra simply because they aren’t armed? (Gee, I don’t know—maybe because they’re on his trail and are the only two who could stop him!) Why do plotters holding all the cards insist on planting elaborate ruses and delaying action in the first place? Are we to believe that fanatics love their games more than their causes?

For all of this, Angels and Demons has its rewards. Visually it’s a treat—a sort of Vatican travelogue merged with a sci-fi film. For all the high-falootin’ symbols, it’s also a mindless fluff, the sort of thing you can watch on a night in which you want to turn off your brain and indulge in sinful escapism. That makes it—yep!—a cosi cosa summer film. We suggest saving it for a rainy midweek evening; you can seek redemption with a better film over the weekend.

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