2009 | Director: Ron Howard (“Backdraft”) | Writers: Akiva Goldsman (“Batman & Robin”) and David Koepp (“Indiana Jones and the Terrible Fourth Film”)
A film adapted from a book is an odd creature. By the time a book has been optioned by a producer, chopped and crammed into a screenplay, filtered through the mind of an egomaniacal director, dumped onto film, edited into incoherence, and tested by bribe-seeking focus groups, it can hardly be considered that same work anymore. Many authors shine through anyway, thanks to the retention of a certain style, or trademark characters, or signature dialogue that can’t help but bear its creator’s fingerprint. A film based on an Elmore Leonard book, for instance, is instantly recognizable as his—and usually for the best.
But author recognition is a two-way street, allowing for a remarkably bad pop writer such as Dan Brown to appear as the de facto central character in a film version of his work. The 2006 smash hit adaptation of “The Da Vinci Code” featured superstar Tom Hanks in the lead role, as well as respected blockbuster director Ron Howard calling the shots behind the camera; yet the film’s notable features were profoundly idiotic dialogue, remedial plotting, and a haughty disregard for reason—all benchmarks of the typical Brown novel. It’s no wonder Howard felt it necessary to “spice up” the monumentally dull film with glowing, spinning texts and whirling 3D renderings of motionless art. Howard, wiser for the experience, lays off the elaborate window-dressing for the sequel, “Angels & Demons” (the book was actually a prequel, but who’s counting?), resulting in a vastly superior product shot with level-headed style. Unfortunately, it’s still not enough to wholly erase the stupidity of the Brown material at its core.
This time around, Robert Langdon (a sneering Hanks, thankfully free of the terrifying mullet from the first film) is pulled from his self-righteous, logic-based existence to aid the Catholic Church, newly sans Pope, in stopping the destruction of Vatican City. It seems those ancient jokers the Illuminati are back in town, and, having stolen a city-destroying bit of antimatter from a group of security-poor scientists, are scheming to wipe the religious types from the face of Rome as payback for some Church-warranted murder back in ye olden days. The Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor) hopes Langdon will both help find the antimatter, along with scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayalet Zurer), and help him convince the Church’s multitudinous Cardinals, all in town for the papal conclave, to break holy tradition and hightail it out of there. Luckily, Langdon knows just the right banal facts about architecture and symbology to lend a skeptical hand.
To Howard’s great credit, he has upped the ante considerably for “Angels,” giving its players major stakes and pulse-racing time constraints; however, at the heart of the movie is the same problem that dragged “Code” into the muck, and that problem is Langdon. Hanks notwithstanding, the character is little more than a smug, lucky jerk, a man who can’t help but rub the various offenses the Church has committed in the face of those who beg for his assistance. Worse, his holier-than-thou agnosticism undermines not only the film’s creaky message—that science and religion should be buddies—but it also negates fantastic work by the veteran crew of “Angels,” from the booming, memorable score by Hans Zimmer to the exquisite cinematography by Salvatore Totino.
It’s no wonder a sequel to “Code” was produced, considering that the film grossed something near infinity dollars in its theatrical run, and it’s hard to blame Howard for wanting to take a mulligan after the criticism aimed his way; those reasons aside, it’s confusing as to how another of Brown’s books has found its way to the big screen. Even those without religious leanings shouldn’t be able to help but be repelled by Brown’s vitriol toward the Roman Catholic Church, if only because the alternative he offers to a life of faith is that of a hateful and purposeless Langdon, thrilled by “proof” of a Godless world and driven only by a suffocating and short-sighted brand of intellectualism. Howard may not buy it, but he can’t stop Brown from declaring it throughout the film.
Rating: Two of Five Stars