Thursday, May 14, 2009
I'm beginning to think Ron Howard (Frost/Nixon) should stick to adapting non-fiction. Then he can avoid taking the blame for the types of contrivances and general absurdity so prevalent in Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code (2006). Or he can at least try harder to sell the viewers the preposterous mechanics that move this thriller. If it weren't for Howard's talent for directing actors, and his fascination with capturing the nuances of Catholic ritual, the movie would be completely without merit. But in this respect, the film manages to avoid some of the less realistic nonsense that pervaded his earlier Dan Brown adaptation. The film starts intriguingly enough, with Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) recruited by the Vatican police to help fight a threat from the Illuminati against the Vatican. The secret society's timing is particularly dangerous because this attack coincides with the papal conclave convened after the mysterious death of the pope. Langdon's skill in translating symbols will come in handy as he tries to solve the riddles that will lead him to a canister containing a rather unusual weapon of mass destruction, antimatter. Yes, that's right. Who would have thought that antimatter would be the MacGuffin in this summer thriller instead of Star Trek? While much lip service is paid to the science vs. religion aspect of the plot, recent reports that the Vatican find little to object to in Angels & Demons are a good indication that this film is only a superficial exploration of the subject. Say what you will about The Da Vinci Code, but at least that movie's controversial assertion that Christ was the patriarch of a whole line of descendants had some bite. Angels & Demons starts and ends with a bit of science fiction hokum, and it's not a strong bit at that. If anything is diverting in the first two-thirds of the film, it is Howard's look at the intricacies of Vatican culture. From the rituals associated with the papal conclave to the hierarchy among the Vatican security forces, a good deal of time is spent devoted to what almost amounts to a sociological examination of a subculture often ignored by American cinema. The cast is uniformly excellent. Tom Hanks is comfortable with this brainier riff on Indiana Jones. Ewan McGregor displays a clean-scrubbed boyish charm that seldom finds its way into his other roles (Big Fish being the only exception that comes to mind). Howard is an actor's director, after all. Notice the natural way he gives even minor parts like Chartrand (Thure Lindhardt) - one of the Swiss Guard - their due, endowing them with distinct personalities in a modicum of time. Meanwhile, crap like X-Men Origins: Wolverine can't even make its main character three-dimensional. But the film falls apart in the third act. Like the first film in this franchise, it suffers from multiple climaxes. That is a particular pet peeve of mine, and always a signal of insecure screenwriters. It is like they feel they must keep building on the ending trying to top each preceding scene with a more suspenseful scene after. Except when the climax involves a priest flying a helicopter, the utter absurdity of such an act means that anything that follows is pure contrivance. Angels & Demons opens in theaters nationwide this Friday.