- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 18, 2006

The brains behind “The Da Vinci Code” hyped themselves into a corner.

What film could meet, or even come within spitting distance of, the expectations set up by the Dan Brown best-seller?

As it turns out, director Ron Howard and company never come close.

The film’s source material seemed grist for a surefire blockbuster. The first 50 pages alone read like a script for an edge-of-your-seat chase picture.

On-screen, the transition proves more cumbersome than anyone could have imagined. And we haven’t even discussed the film’s anti-Christian themes, ripped more or less straight from Mr. Brown’s novel.

Religious scholar Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks with his new, extended ‘do) is in France for a presentation when he learns an academic he was supposed to meet has been murdered in the Louvre.

The French police, led by Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), ask Robert for help in cracking the case, but while Bezu sees Robert as a potential suspect, police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) needs Robert’s help to understand the clues left at the death scene. The body was left sprawled on the museum floor in homage to Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man.”

The victim, we learn, was Sophie’s grandfather, a man who belonged to a Christian splinter group with a dubious history.

It’s that history that gets a workout here and similarly has worked up Christians ever since the book’s release.

Jesus Christ, as Mr. Brown’s story goes, had a child with Mary Magdalene, and their offspring’s lineage continues to the present.

To learn this “truth,” Robert and Sophie must evade the French police, team with an eccentric Bible scholar (Sir Ian McKellan) and square off against an albino assassin (Paul Bettany) seeking the same information.

Mr. Hanks’ character throws Christianity a bone in the waning moments, but for many, the damage will be done.

“The Da Vinci Code” injects a sense of history and intelligence into the often brain-dead thriller genre, but too often the movie feels like a history seminar taught by a humorless wonk.

Mr. Howard took a guaranteed page turner and made it into a watch glancer at a punishing two-plus hours. The director’s films are never less than handsome, but his “Code” is shockingly drab in terms of emotional clarity. Mr. Hanks is not as lethargic as the critical Cannes first responders would have us believe, but he’s also never much more than adequate here. The fear that gripped Robert throughout the book’s initial chapters barely registers on Mr. Hanks’ nonplused mug.

Like Chris Columbus’ two “Harry Potter” films, Mr. Howard’s “Code” is faithful to the source, but there’s precious little ingenuity here to differentiate the two.

The film does find a pulse as soon as Mr. McKellan appears as Robert’s longtime friend and scholar. His character deconstructs Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” with such assurance that even true believers might buy into the film’s premise. The busy actor is having a grand time here and, for a while, so are we. Our enthusiasm dwindles after a series of midfilm revelations that were delivered with far more patience in print.

Mr. Howard will be lauded for having the “courage” to stick with the novel’s incendiary themes, but he had little choice. The entire story hinges on what many consider blasphemy.

In movie terms, the bigger sin is wasting such precious resources in the service of such an underwhelming tale.

**

TITLE:”The Da Vinci Code”

RATING:PG:13 (Disturbing imagery, violence, brief drug references and adult language)

CREDITS:Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Akiva Goldsman based on the novel by Dan Brown

RUNNING TIME:148 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypicturescom/movies/thedavincicode/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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