Here we go again. The last time a literary escapade by Dan Brown made it to the screen, the result was a big bore and big box office hit. "The Da Vinci Code" was exactly the kind of book that, in a saner world, would not have been adapted for the screen in the first place, and not because of its supposed heresies, either. Virtually all of its clues were based on verbal or visual diagrams, most of them abstruse – not exactly the stuff of cinema. It was a bit like trying to make an action-packed summer movie with the board game Scrabble at its center.
But, I repeat, the film made money, some $217.5 million, and so now we have what by all rights should be a prequel but instead is a kind of sequel to "The Da Vinci Code." The novel "Angels and Demons" preceded "The Da Vinci Code" and was the first to feature Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). In the new movie, he's entangled once again with the Roman Catholic Church hierarachy who, despite some residual ill will from their last go-round, seek his help in thwarting a plot against the Vatican engineered by the Illuminati, a secret society going back to the Enlightenment that has kidnapped four prominent cardinals and plans to blow up the Vatican – all in retribution for violent attacks against its members going back hundreds of years. (Galileo, according to Brown, was an Illuminati.)
The biggest improvement in "Angels and Demons" over its predecessor is tonsorial. In "The Da Vinci Code," Hanks sported a scraggly ponytail, or whatever you want to call it. Why would he make himself look so ridiculous? To me, this was a riddle far more inexplicable than any of the arcane religious symbology on display. It's not like Robert is a swinger. He's pretty grim, and not in the camp/facetious way that, say, Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones is.
In "Angels and Demons," Robert has normal hair, though he's still grim. He's paired with a fetching Italian physicist (Ayelet Zurer), but she's pretty grim, too. They make quite a long-faced pair, which is no fun at all. Director Ron Howard, who also made "The Da Vinci Code," throws in a lot more running and jumping and chasing this time around, but he also carries over from that film its dour tone. Was he afraid that audiences might doubt Robert's seriousness if he came across as a bit of a scamp? Despite its serioso trappings, "Angels and Demons" is pure pulp. Trying to pretend otherwise is silly. And Hanks, who could have been charmingly roguish in the role, is once again reduced to a sodden somberness.
For its first half hour or so I was worried that "Angels and Demons" was going to be as talky and exposition-heavy as its predecessor. Characters are forever recapping plot points just in case the dimmest member of the audience didn't get them the first time. But then the plot, exciting but absurd, kicks in. With a new pope waiting to be elected, Robert realizes he has 24 hours to rescue the cardinals, who are being offed at the rate of one per hour, and save the Vatican from some kind of antimatter God particle produced in the same CERN physics lab that employs his sidekick. Even with a Hans Zimmer score that seems to think it's underscoring "The Greatest Story Ever Told" on steroids, and all too much dark-lit flesh rending, it's difficult not to get caught up in the high-toned tomfoolery of it all. Armin Mueller-Stahl, with that muttery gravitas of his, plays with wicked aplomb an ancient cardinal, and Ewan McGregor is effective as a high-level church caretaker so full of pious rectitude that he seems instantly suspicious (to us, if not to everyone else).
It would have been fun if, in his mad mission to save St. Peter's, Robert had been stymied by something as maddeningly mundane as Rome's notorious traffic congestion. But wit is not Howard's strong point. He's most comfortable in the realm of derring-do. "Angels and Demons" is an OK action film, but only the humorless will find it heretical – or educational. Grade: B- (Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.)