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Dustin Putman


Dustin's Review

Angels & Demons  (2009)
2 Stars
Directed by Ron Howard.
Cast: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard, Armin Mueller-Stahl, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Thure Lindhart, David Pasquesi, Cosimo Fusco, Victor Alfieri, Franklin Amobi, Curt Lowens, Bob Yerkes, Marco Fiorini, Rance Howard.
2009 – 138 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for violence, disturbing images and thematic material).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 12, 2009.
Based on Dan Brown's gargantuan best-seller, 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" was an international box-office hit that drew unwarranted controversy for its fictional twisting of history and the Catholic religion. Critical reaction was unkind, too, with many reviewers labeling the film as lifeless, slow-moving and static. Having recently revisited the picture, my original positive reaction still stands. In this writer's opinion, "The Da Vinci Code" is a handsome, utterly captivating thriller of mystery and intellect that places the viewer in the role of participant to the rapidly evolving plot. Sure, one must suspend disbelief at times, but it all held a sort of logic within the realm of the story and characters. As for the exposition-heavy scenes, they were carried out with great aplomb by a sterling cast and served to deepen the intriguing mythology.

In adapting Brown's earlier novel, "Angels & Demons," returning director Ron Howard (2008's "Frost/Nixon") and screenwriters David Koepp (2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") and Akiva Goldsman (2007's "I Am Legend") have transformed a prequel into a loose sequel. Since that book was more action-oriented and suspense-laden, the assumption was that the movie version would follow suit. Instead, the film falls into the very traps that "The Da Vinci Code" was unfairly accused of. The pacing is languid and in desperate need of an adrenaline shot. The potentially crackerjack plot is over-bloated, preachy and too reliant on coincidence. The core investigative mission—a race against the clock more akin to a leisurely tour through Roman churches—is ludicrous to the point of being nonsensical. The characters are bland, rarely playing more than one note. As well-conceived as the earlier cinematic effort was, this one feels like a rush job where none of the collective puzzle pieces organically fit together.

The Pope has died and Vatican City has come to a virtual standstill, waiting with bated breath for a successor to be chosen. If that weren't enough, the four Preferiti cardinals have been kidnapped and set to die in turn, every hour on the hour starting at 8:00 p.m. The grand finale is scheduled for midnight, when a stolen canister of antimatter (created by science's search for "The God Particle") is set to lose its containment power source. If this happens, it will cause a cataclysmic event equaling that of a small nuclear explosion. Eager to thwart disaster and bring the guilty parties to justice, the Vatican police seek the help of Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). Suspecting that the secret society of Illuminati is behind these deeds, Robert teams with Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) to retrace the steps and collect the clues of the ancient "Path of Illumination." By doing this, he hopes to locate the churches where the cardinals are about to be assassinated, and, ultimately, find the antimatter. He had better hurry up and stop talking, though; time is running out.

Barely more than a subpar rehash of "The Da Vinci Code," "Angels & Demons," this time, also reminds of the silly "National Treasure" series. Whereas part of the fun of Robert Langdon's last adventure was his absorbing, analytical skill in deciphering the meaning of symbols, in this film he seems to draw conclusions not out of reason, but out of a script requirement to get him from one setting to the next. By the time he approaches a random statue at the Castel Sant'Angelo and correctly decides to follow in the direction that its sword is pointing, all bets are off. For a picture set mostly over a single night and relying on the ticking-down of a clock, one would expect heightened tension to pervade the proceedings. Amazingly, the narrative repetitively consists of people standing around in rooms explaining the plot to each other, interspersed with scenes of tunnel-frolicking and cardinal-snuffing. When all else fails, filmmaker Ron Howard instructs his faith-based characters to lecture on the benefits of organized religion while calmly discounting Langdon's own skeptical beliefs. "The Da Vinci Code" used religion in nonjudgmental ways and for the equal purposes of entertainment and insight. "Angels & Demons" sometimes comes off as a pushy lecture produced and directed by Kirk Cameron.

With no further substantial exploration into who Robert Langdon is, Tom Hanks (2009's "The Great Buck Howard") is left wanting in a role that does him no favors. Hanks could make sitting alone on an island perch for two hours entertaining—in fact, he did just that in 2000's "Cast Away"—so it is all the more curious that he lacks energy and vigor. He simply is going through the motions. As female cohort Vittoria Vetra, Ayelet Zurer (2008's "Vantage Point") is no match for the first film's sensational Audrey Tautou. Zurer and Hanks share little chemistry or connection, the former's most notable attribute being her resemblance to Anne Hathaway. As the late pope's trusted aide Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, Ewan McGregor (2008's "Cassandra's Dream") is adequate, but has trouble grabbing hold of his part's intentionally murky motivations. And as for the mystery man responsible for the cardinals' deaths, Nikolaj Lie Kaas has few lines and nothing to do, a poor screenwriter's answer to Paul Bettany's far more fascinating "The Da Vinci Code" character of brainwashed Opus Dei follower Silas.

Rousing the audience from catatonia are several elements, none of them enough to save the film as a whole. The music score by Hans Zimmer (2008's "The Dark Knight") is lush, layered and booming. The cinematography by Salvatore Totino (2005's "Cinderella Man") is slick and atmospheric, taking full advantage of the gorgeous foreign locations and seamlessly matching them up with the material shot by necessity on soundstages. And, after too long a wait, the St. Peter's Square-set third act finally kicks into high gear and delivers some startling excitement. It is followed, regrettably, by a denouement that relies on an unforgivably asinine coincidence in order to reveal the identity of the master villain. Like all that has come before, it is painfully contrived.

Lackadaisical and dumbed-down, "Angels & Demons" takes a provocative premise—the business with the antimatter is every bit as reverent as need be—and drains much of the life and immediacy out of it. When not wholly stagnant, the plot progression seems to be set on repeat as Robert Langdon keeps reaching the next ill-fated cardinal seconds after his doom. As a result, the film becomes overly predictable, and the endless (and needless) explanatory information doesn't blend nearly as fluidly into the action as the dialogue-driven scenes in "The Da Vinci Code." In dire need of a judicial editor and a page-one rewrite, "Angels & Demons" is plain, old clunky. No amount of exotic scenery or soaring instrumentals can change that.
© 2009 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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