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Angels & Demons
(No longer in theaters)
May 15, 2009
It might have been a hit, but Ron Howard’s movie of Dan Brown’s Catholic-symbolist potboiler The Da Vinci Code stank to heaven: Howard did it for the money and was clearly too dispirited after the flop of Cinderella Man to fake the requisite conviction. (Brown’s dumbed-down Umberto Eco–isms at least had fervor.) For the sequel, Angels & Demons, Howard seems hell-bent on atonement—of a sort. He delivers a shapely, stylish, white-knuckle horror-thriller that hits its marks with blood and thunder. It stinks to heaven, too, but it isn’t lame. The streets of Rome haven’t run this red since the Inquisition.
Tom Hanks is back, slimmer and sans bouffant, as Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist turned breathless sleuth. His vigorous swim interrupted, Langdon learns that Vatican City is under siege. A liberal Pope has mysteriously croaked; four cardinals have been kidnapped, ostensibly by the ancient, pro-science sect “the Illuminati,” and are marked to die at hourly intervals; a tube of antimatter stolen from a Swiss supercollider will vaporize the Vatican at midnight; and—as if all this weren’t enough—a conclave is meeting behind locked doors to elect a new pontiff, and some of the candidates (especially Armin Mueller-Stahl) look awfully shifty. Is Stellan Skarsgård (as the obstructive head of the Swiss Guard) the Illuminati mastermind? Does Ewan McGregor’s lack of inflection as Camerlengo—temporary head of Vatican City—suggest he has something to hide, or is it just his usual lackluster acting? This Church dispenses loaves and red herrings.
To save Catholicism, Hanks’s Langdon and Ayelet Zurer’s comely Italian particle physicist Vittoria Vetra join forces on a furious scavenger hunt from church to square to skull-laden crypt. It was Vetra who isolated the stolen antimatter—the “God particle”—and Langdon is suitably awed: “You’re talking about the moment of creation.” “Yes, in a way, I am.” Their exchanges have a comfy sameness. He explains the meaning of a sign, she restates what he just said, and he says, “Exactly.” Their squealing tires underscored with booming liturgical choirs, the pair habitually arrives just in time (an onscreen clock shows 8:59, 9:59, etc.) for the latest cardinal carnage.
About that carnage: Angels & Demons is rated PG-13 in spite of multiple splattery shootings, brandings, gouged eyeballs, and close-ups of holy men writhing in flames. Of course, there’s no nudity. Also, the Lord’s name is never taken in vain, at least in the sense of George Carlin words-you-can’t-say-on-TV. In fact, God is invoked as the reason for Langdon’s presence: Despite the symbologist’s professed lack of faith, it is Langdon, the academic, who protects the Catholic Church from loony fanatics. There has been a lot of noise about Brown’s supposed anti-Catholicism—talk of boycotts, scholarly denunciations. That’s surprising. With atheists out of the closet and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens anchoring the best-seller lists, Brown’s scriptural cliffhangers put him squarely on the side of the angels. (Even if he were on the side of the demons, at least he believes they exist.) You can understand the conservative ratings board’s reasoning in opening the doors to kids: When a film is so pro-belief, what’s a little arterial spray?