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Wednesday, May 20, 2009 02:46 pm

Angels and Demons action takes your mind off misery

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Though I understand why Catholics around the world would be upset with the basic premise in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s potboiler Angels and Demons, any protest in opposition to it would be simply adding fuel to a fire set to condemn a ridiculous movie. Even more than the first Howard/Brown collaboration, The Da Vinci Code, this pseudo-sequel-prequel is nothing more than an overblown piece of popcorn entertainment that draws its sensibility from old-time serials and comic books. Whenever a movie pulls out anti-matter as its main threat, I know not to take things too seriously and to simply sit back and have a good time.

For a while, Howard’s film is a well-crafted piece of escapist entertainment that breathlessly propels us from one set piece to the next. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has been called in to unravel a mystery that revolves around four Cardinals who have been kidnapped from the Vatican, where they have come to participate in the Conclave to choose a new pope. Seems the old foe of the church, the Illuminati, a group persecuted when they espoused scientific fact over religious faith, are behind these shenanigans. They plan to stage a grand act of revenge by killing each of their four victims hourly, culminating in the destruction of Vatican City with a piece of stolen anti-matter. This act will symbolize the light of truth obliterating the falsehood they feel the church represents. These guys make no small plans.

With the abductees being held in separate unknown locations spread out around Rome, Langdon and comely scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Vetra) try to solve the many clues left to them as to the Cardinals’ whereabouts. Meanwhile, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) frets over whether the Vatican will be destroyed on his watch and Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) does his best to get a new pope chosen before disaster strikes.

As you can tell, there’s a lot going on here and Howard’s pacing is quite good as he hurls us from one tense sequence to the next, which not only increases the tension but prevents us from thinking too much about how ridiculous all of this is. Hanks is invaluable for this, as his steadfast, earnest performance lends a sense of credibility that the story doesn’t deserve. His purpose is to decode every clue and explain each piece of history that Brown throws out so that we can follow along. He does so with such authority that we’re eager to hear the next tidbit that comes out of his mouth. Whereas Nicolas Cage rushes through a similar assignment in the NationalTreasure films as if it is an unpleasant chore, Hanks’ sincerity is invaluable here.

Eventually, the film implodes under its own weight, as Howard forgets that more isn’t always more. He has yet to figure out how to film an action scene without it becoming a muddled mess. There’s one too many breathless chase, and an extended climax that goes from exciting to tedious as it steadily loses momentum. In the end, your take on Demons will depend on just how high is your tolerance for the ridiculous. If you’ve been waiting for a film that combines religious history with sci-fi science and action movie conventions, Howard’s film is for you. As for me, I’ll just wait for Transformers 2.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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