A person would have to be living under a rock to have not heard about the controversy surrounding "The Da Vinci Code," and the vehement outrage its religious and historical theories have sparked within certain Christian groups. Nonetheless, that hasn't stopped the novel by Dan Brown from reportedly becoming the second best-selling book in history (ironically, behind the Bible). Having not read the book myself, it cannot be commented on, except to respectfully remind those who are offended by its words to look up the definition of "fiction" in the dictionary and learn to lighten up. What can be said wholeheartedly is that the rapturously anticipated film adaptation of "The Da Vinci Code" marks a welcome return to the days when potential summer blockbusters didn't just rely on mindless CGI effects to garner moviegoers, but actually featured complexity, character nuances and a brain. Indeed, director Ron Howard has succeeded handsomely at mounting an old-school thriller just as heavy on intellect and thought-provoking ideas as it is on chase sequences and shootouts.
When a curator is murdered at the Louvre and found displayed in a seemingly ritualistic fashion, visiting Harvard symbologist professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is called in to decode and translate the markings the victim left at the crime scene before he died. Enter the curator's estranged granddaughter, French cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), who shows up just in time to warn Robert that he is the prime suspect in Captain Fache's (Jean Reno) investigation. As Robert and Sophie go on the run, they gradually discover a long-standing war being waged between a society known as the Priory of Sion and the Vatican-sanctioned Opus Dei Catholic organization involving the secrets behind Jesus Christ's pastproof that he married Mary Magdalene, who birthed his child following his crucifixionand no less than the Holy Grail itself.
Any controversy surrounding "The Da Vinci Code" proves to be unfounded by the film itself. Whether one chooses to believe the theories set forth by novelist Dan Brown is beside the point; those viewers paying attention will clearly see that the story is not about right and wrong or fact and falsehoods, but about the mere possibilities concerning how our history may have been shaped. A suspension of disbelief is sporadically required, but in the context of the smart screenplay by Akiva Goldsman (2004's "I, Robot
"), the historical-based questions offered up make a mostly logical and convincing case for themselves.
The film, simultaneously playing as a literate study of religionalbeit one that, again, is wrapped in a veil of fictionand a tightly woven thriller, works a spell on the viewer that actually resembles a good page-turner. As discoveries are made, plot developments are clarified, and unforeseen twists are revealed, "The Da Vinci Code" grows exceedingly intriguing and really quite crafty in its design. Proof that director Ron Howard, rebounding strongly after a stream of overrated, sickeningly manipulative projects (2001's "A Beautiful Mind
," 2005's "Cinderella Man
"), is back on his game comes with the way interest does not flag even in his talky, exposition-heavy sections. He earns these slower interludes, and each one has a specific purpose in unearthing fascinating new clues and evidence for both the characters and the viewer as the grand scheme of things moves into focus.
Oddly enough, Tom Hanks (2002's "Road to Perdition
") is the weakest link in the otherwise marvelous cast. Hanks is okay, but sometimes wavering on the verge of stiffness, as symbologist Robert Langdon. It doesn't help that Robert is only vaguely drawn and little is learned about him as a person. As Sophie Neveu, it takes all of two minutes for the twentysomething Audrey Tautou (2001's "Amelie") to dispel any doubts that she is right for the part of a learned cryptologist. Tautou is simply superb, gracing Sophiehaunted by memories of her parents' deaths and her subsequently troubled relationship with her grandfatherwith an earthy, emotionally resonant gravitas
. Sophie and Robert's relationship is handled just right, building upon a trust and respect that thankfully remains platonic.
As Sir Leigh Teabing, a Grail scholar whom longtime friend Robert turns to for help, Ian McKellen (2003's "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
") enters the picture at the midway point and nearly steals the film. McKellen is a force to be reckoned withendlessly watchable, intense, and even funny as he called upon to breathe life into some wordy monologues. Finally, Paul Bettany (2004's "Wimbledon
") is scarily mesmerizing and ultimately sympathetic as Silas, an albino Opus Dei follower who has turned to murder to do his mysterious master's bidding. Silas, starting out as a two-dimensional psychopath, genuinely surprises as he becomes a decidedly tragic figure who has been brainwashed and then, for all intents and purposes, abandoned by the people he thought would always be there for him. Bettany is ripe for the challenge in building layer upon layer to a highly memorable and poignant screen character.
Early reviews of "The Da Vinci Code" have undeservedly accused the picture of being dull and static when it is anything but. At a hefty two and half hours, the film is so compelling that the time flies by. It isn't perfect by any stretch of the imaginationan early car chase is patently ridiculous and would be more at home in "The Fast and the Furious
;" some of the plot twists (but not all of them) are predictable enough that one finds him or herself having to wait for the protagonists to catch up; and a few climactic developments are muddled or overly convenient in their conceptionbut the film's problem areas are minimal in comparison to the bigger ideas at work and the picture as a whole. Slickly filmed on location in Paris and London, "The Da Vinci Code" is provocative in a way so few Hollywood thrillers are. When the end arrives, encouraging further thought and consideration on the viewer's part once they have exited the theater, the film has long since left an indelible impression that cannot be denied.