Can't miss movie misses: Hanks, Howard phone in their performances in 'Angels & Demons'

Posted: Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Angels & Demons"

Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures/Sony, Zade Rosenthal
Ap Photo/Columbia Pictures/Sony, Zade Rosenthal
Tom Hanks, from left, Ayelet Zurer, Thure Lindhart and Ewan McGregor are shown in a scene from "Angels & Demons."

Columbia Pictures

2 hours, 18 minutes

Tom Hanks plus Ron Howard plus a rollicking potboiler of a novel. Sounds like a can't miss proposition, right? Well, actually it did miss -- three years ago.

"The Da Vinci Code," despite being one of the best-selling novels of the last 2,000 years turned out to be a ponderous and anticlimactic by-the-numbers chase flick without half of the energy of the book.

It wasn't horrible, but after all the hype it was a huge disappointment. But still, that combination of talent should have produced better ... maybe if they just try it again. Hope springs eternal only to squashed yet again by a needless and lifeless adaptation.

I really thought that "Angels & Demons" might turn out to be good. After all, as books go, it was actually the better of the two Robert Langdon adventures from airport novelist Dan Brown.

Though written prior to "Da Vinci," the powers that be have chosen, probably wisely, to set it as a sequel to the 2006 blockbuster. The story's main advantage is that, unlike "Da Vinci," "Angels" isn't dependent upon such a fabulously incendiary hook.

There's nothing in the story that is going to make anyone question their faith or the roots of the church. It's a murder-mystery "we've got to get to the bomb in time" kind of thing, and therefore there is no great secret to be spoiled, rendering the film pointless.

Unfortunately, Ron Howard and Co. manage to do that anyway.

Hanks returns as symbologist-extraordinaire Langdon. When four powerful cardinals, each in line for the top job after the death of the Pope, are kidnapped, the Vatican police reluctantly enlist the aid of the notorious professor, despite his involvement with the "Da Vinci" case.

It appears that an old foe of the church, the villainous and powerful secret society of Illuminati, has risen from the depths of history to take final revenge. For years the Catholic Church suppressed scientific knowledge that it felt contradicted religious teaching, and it's this that has the Illuminati so peeved.

Therefore, at the stroke of midnight on the eve of Conclave (the process of choosing a new pope) the Vatican and much of Rome will be destroyed by an anti-matter bomb, thereby showing the ultimate superiority of science over religion.

Langdon, and his crew of highly expendable Italian police, must race all over Rome finding the ancient clues that will lead them to the Illuminati's hideout, and the likely location of the bomb. Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, a worried Ewan McGregor, the old Pope's special assistant and guardian of all Christendom until a new leader is chosen, wrings his hands and fervently prays that it won't all go up in smoke on his watch.

This isn't a bad plot, although the anti-matter bomb idea plays less silly in the book.

In fact, most of this plays less silly in the book. One of the best things about the novel, and this goes for "Da Vinci Code," too, is the little historical tidbits sprinkled throughout the action.

Here, the writers foolishly attempt to retain that element by giving the factoids to Langdon as explanatory conversations amid the action. As a result we end up with exchanges like, "Let's go! We've got to get to that plaza before they kill another cardinal! Look! There's the obelisk! An obelisk is an elongated pyramid! They were used in ancient times to denote the entrance to temples! This one is 83 feet high, weighs 331 tons and was brought to Rome from Egypt in 37 AD!" -- all while running flat out.

I don't feel too bad for Hanks, though, who I'm sure got a huge payday for this, nor for Howard who was similarly well-rewarded. The two are Oscar-calibre artists who were doing little more than phoning it in. Hanks got his hair cut, but I doubt there was much more emotional investment for him. McGregor probably does the best job in the film, though being younger I guess he has a little more on the line, career-wise.

The biggest problem with "Angels & Demons" is that no one seemed to care enough to give it any reason for being filmed, other than that the book existed and money could be made. Everything is perfunctory. The chase from clue to clue, ancient statue to ancient church generally ends with our hero looking up at a pointing marble arm and shouting, "Which direction is that?! ... West? ... OK -- we go West!"

That's not clever, nor is it even particularly diverting. My party rapidly became bored with the repetitive nature of the chase, and the movie devolved into a series of whispered sarcastic comments and barely suppressed guffaws (much to the annoyance of one audience member in the nearly empty Saturday afternoon showing. I'm sorry, but c'mon. We had to get through the nearly 2 1/2 hours somehow.)

Also problematic, especially for those of us trying to enjoy the film with a good laugh, is how abruptly grisly the film becomes. People burning to death, being branded, shot, stabbed and having their eyes gouged out is a little much for this kind of a movie. On the page, this is all a little easier to get away with, but on the big screen ... yeesh.

Word is Dan Brown just sold the as-yet-unreleased "Lost Symbol" to Hollywood, so perhaps Hanks will have a chance to go back to the hairdresser and give it another shot. No word yet on where it's set, but as long as the locale has as helpful a statuary as does Rome, I'm sure Robert Langdon will have no trouble finding his way to the end. Whether the audience will have the stamina to follow is another story.

Grade: C-

"Angels & Demons" is rated PG-13 for some disturbing violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic desinger, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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