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Vatican in the Spotlight, Losing Its Religion

MOVIE REVIEW
Angels & Demons (2009)

PK-10
Zade Rosenthal/Columbia Pictures

“Angels & Demons” is a serviceable bit of nonsense from the Dan Brown pipeline. As a Ron Howard-directed film, it’s tighter and more exciting than “The Da Vinci Code,” but still hampered by a rather thorough ridiculousness. So much can be made of the insular, mysterious inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church, that it’s a shame such a ripe milieu has, for the second time, been reduced to common thriller fodder.

Tom Hanks returns as expert “symbologist” Robert Langdon in what is actually a prequel to “Da Vinci.” Vatican security hires the Harvard professor to assist them in an investigation of the Illuminati, a shadowy organization that fosters worldwide conspiracies and appears to be targeting the modern Roman Catholic Church. The villainous group has caused significant strife: the Pope dies under mysterious circumstances, the Large Hadron Collider is stolen, and several Cardinals are kidnapped and branded with ancient Illuminati symbols just as the College meets in Conclave to choose a new leader.

The film, like its predecessor, collects such quality actors as Mr. Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård and Armin Mueller-Stahl and deposits them in an entirely plot-driven affair. Langdon remains an enigma, a non-believer for reasons never explored and played rather humorlessly given his status as the centerpiece of a silly adventure thriller. The other actors similarly serve as vessels of plot advancement, never functioning as fully-fledged individuals with their own ideas and concerns.

Thus the picture depends entirely on the interest and energy generated by Langdon’s investigation. Mr. Howard, working from a screenplay by big-budget Hollywood veterans David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, progresses things quickly. Langdon is hurtled through new developments and complications at breakneck speed, as every new location provides some sort of obscure clue that sends him further along his wild goose chase. There are a few well-directed, tense action scenes, spurred along by the “24”-like single day, preventing an act of terrorism plot structure. The filmmaker, never particularly adept at imbuing distinct, tangible atmosphere in his work, makes overtures in that direction. The movie unfolds in a classically slick euro thriller environment, but it’s bolstered by Mr. Howard’s inclusion of ethereal horror imagery, using moody gothic visuals to show us the kidnapping and murders of several members of the College of Cardinals.

Still, everything wraps up far too concisely and simply, and as soon as one provides an iota of thought to what’s gone on all credibility seeps away. There is, buried deep within the superficial façade, the material here for a sincere, in-depth insiders look at the challenges the Roman Catholic Church has faced as it reconciles its eternal traditions with modernity. “Angels & Demons,” in its relentless drive to occupy middlebrow, mainstream “National Treasure” territory, is more concerned with generating busy, frenetic activity without considering its cost.

ANGELS & DEMONS

Opened on May 15 in the United States and on May 14 in Britain.

Directed by Ron Howard; written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown; director of photography, Salvatore Totino; edited by Dan Hanley and Mike Hill; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, Allan Cameron; produced by Brian Grazer, Mr. Howard and John Calley; released by Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment. Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes. This film is rated PG-13.

WITH: Tom Hanks (Prof. Robert Langdon), Ewan McGregor (Camerlengo Patrick McKenna), Ayelet Zurer (Dr. Vittoria Vetra), Stellan Skarsgard (Commander Richter) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Cardinal Strauss).

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