“The Da Vinci Code” might be the least memorable blockbuster in recent history. Plodding and lifeless, director Ron Howard’s 150-minute beast lumbers along, hitting the source book’s important plot points without delivering much in the way of entertainment or inspired moments.
Nevertheless, when it hauled in $750 million at the worldwide box office, a follow-up became a no-brainer. It arrives this weekend in the guise of “Angels & Demons,” a sequel that pits symbology professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) against the Illuminati, a mysterious secret society that has kidnapped and threatened to murder four cardinals of the Catholic Church.
These and other cardinals from around the globe have gathered to elect a new pontiff, the pope having died recently of a stroke. Or was he murdered by the same person responsible for taking the red-robed church elders hostage?
Not content to limit themselves to crimes as pedestrian as kidnapping and murder, the Illuminati also have gotten their hands on some anti-matter, courtesy of the Large Hadron Collider, and plan to employ its destructive powers to fulfill the secret society’s ancient prophecy: the destruction of the Vatican by the powers of science.
A note to fans of Dan Brown’s source novels: This is a sequel, not a prequel. Though the novel “Angels & Demons” was released before “The Da Vinci Code,” their chronology has been flipped for the ease of the movie’s narrative. Being unfamiliar with the source material, I couldn’t tell how much of a difference it makes, but it feels like something Mr. Brown’s legion of fans should know.
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Here’s something else the legion of filmgoers who flocked to the first feature should know: “Angels & Demons” is only marginally better than its predecessor. Though it unfolds at a slightly quicker pace, “Angels & Demons” still struggles to maintain momentum as Langdon hurtles around Rome one crazy night trying to solve the puzzles marking the location of the kidnapped cardinals that will lead to the site of the ancient Illuminati church where the anti-matter-cum-bomb has been hidden.
The fine cast deserved better. Mr. Hanks is his usual pleasant self, a normal guy getting by on his wits with charm and self-assurance. Ewan McGregor is sly and confident as Father Patrick McKenna, the camerlengo of the Roman Church, who assumes the power of the office of the papacy upon the pope’s death until a successor is chosen. Equally impressive in supporting roles are Stellan Skarsgard as the icy Commander Richter, Nikolaj Lie Kaas as an assassin for God (or at least God’s handymen here on Earth) and Pierfrancesco Favino as (a somewhat stereotypical) Italian Inspector Olivetti.
The one off-key turn comes from Ayelet Zurer, who plays a professional and romantic interest for Langdon. At least she seems to be a romantic interest. Their relationship is handled so clumsily that it’s hard to tell exactly what writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman understood to be going on between them.
Similarly clumsy is the finale’s big reversal, in which the evening’s true villain is revealed. Though anyone who understands the conventions of movies like “Angels & Demons” will figure out the identity of the real bad guy without too much difficulty, Mr. Koepp and Mr. Goldsman try to maintain the suspense simply by lying to the audience in the form of forcing their characters to behave irrationally in order to maintain the charade.
I won’t spoil the big reveal here, but suffice it to say that the characters’ behavior throughout the rest of the film is head-scratchingly stupid in retrospect. It’s a cheat, and an annoying one at that.
TITLE: “Angels & Demons”
RATING: PG-13 (Sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic materials)