The reviews blasting Angels & Demons—Ron Howard’s second film based on a Dan Brown novel—for being preposterous and unbelievable are nearly as funny as the movie itself. I have a hard time believing that anyone associated with Angels & Demons was unaware that the material and the resulting movie could not possibly be taken seriously. If you approach the movie as slick, improbable nonsense, then you’re apt to have a good time watching it. If you approach it as anything else, you’d probably be wiser not to approach it at all.
As one of the few people who actually found The DaVinci Code (2006) enjoyable enough for what it was, I should probably note that I cut that film a little more slack for at least containing some thought-provoking ideas on the nature of religion. OK, so it copped-out on them—or at least softened them—so as not to frighten the horses, but they were at least in evidence. Angels & Demons may be a slightly better film—it moves faster and is more fun—but it’s short in the idea department. And by short, I mean it hasn’t any, even if it would like you to believe otherwise. This is your basic race-against-time conspiracy thriller tarted up by being set in the halls of the Vatican and given a veneer of theological import that’s about as deep as a puff piece in People magazine.
There’s less reverence for the source novel this time, which is a good thing, since there’s nothing there to be reverent about, which you’ll know if you’ve read it. The basics—including all the clichés and absurdities—of Dan Brown’s clunky novel have been retained, but a lot of the clunk has been stripped away. Characters have been remonkeyed to fit the actors—although excusing Ewan McGregor’s stage-Irish accent by having him be an orphan from Ulster falls apart when we learn he was raised in Rome. (Possibly he attended the Barry Fitzgerald Seminary for Oirish Movie Priests.) For the most part, however, the changes—especially the removal of interminable exposition—make the film more enjoyable than the book.
The story is essentially the same. It’s all about some antimatter that’s been improbably boosted from a research lab in Switzerland—supposedly by a theoretically long-defunct super-secret society called the Illuminati—with a view toward blowing up Vatican City and its covey of cardinals who are in a conclave electing a new pope. Moreover, four of the cardinals have gone missing and our Illumantic madman is out to off a cardinal on the hour every hour till the big blast of a finale. Enter Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to save the day with his keen detecting sense, mental storehouse of academic esoterica and Little Orphan Annie decoder ring (OK, I made up that last one.) If this all sounds pretty silly, it’s only because you don’t know the finer details that will make this stuff come across as the last word in rational thought.
Ron Howard and company approach it all as the astonishing aggregation of balderdash it is, which is what makes it entertaining. Howard is, in fact, almost relentless in his quest for preposterous melodrama, loading the movie with dress extras whose only function is to look even more suspect and sinister than the main players—nearly all of whom get their moment of red herringdom. The biggest chuckle—apart from the ones provided by Brown’s book—for the movie-savvy viewer is the conclave of cardinals comprised of what appears to be every senior citizen in Italian Actors Equity and Rance Howard. It’s always nice to see Ron find a spot for his dad. (I guess he thought bringing in brother Clint would lower the tone too much.)
No, this is not a good movie, but it’s certainly a slickly made one, even if the acting is sometimes a little on the awkward side. (Face it: The very fact that the cast could keep straight faces is a feat of Olivierian proportions.) At the same time, as amusing melodrama, it’s enjoyable flapdoodle. During the summer movie season, you really can’t expect much more. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.