Review: “Angels and Demons”

Markedly improving on “The Da Vinci Code” in every way, the best and most cinematic of author Dan Brown’s four potboilers gets an essentially faithful and dashing adaptation in the energetic yet somewhat bloated “Angels & Demons”. Published before ‘Da Vinci’ hit shelves, Brown’s tome was a much more visceral and concise action thriller than its more famous but ponderous follow-up.

Its sheer efficiency, time-reliant suspense and bigger scale certainly made it a more Hollywood-friendly property than ‘Da Vinci’ or Brown’s other works such as the preposterous Arctic-set “Deception Point” or the tedious cryptography thriller “Digital Fortress”. Added to this, the filmmakers in charge decided to film this second and in the interim have learned lessons from the widely-panned ‘Da Vinci’ film adaptation. The result is a tighter, more agreeable, decidedly more polished, and wider appealing movie that only occasionally drops into the traps of the last film.

Still hampered by Brown’s stock characters and often absurd prose, scribes Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp thankfully don’t feel so bound to the literary word this time and mostly streamline the narrative’s notable excesses. The CERN scenes have been dramatically shortened, the supersonic jet excised, Maximilian Kohler’s role has been ascribed to other characters, and the interesting jurisdictional issues of policing the Vatican have come more into play. The action in some elements has also been beefed up or altered such as a tense sequence inside the Vatican vaults and an often convenient fluctuating power grid gimmick.

Yet there are limits inherent to Brown’s style. Plot heavy and with little characterization, the film has no real weight beyond its on-screen events. The backgrounds of characters like Vitorria and the assassin, which did get explored the book, aren’t even glanced at in the film version which markedly undermines both of them.

While it’s fine for fueling the Enterprise in the “Star Trek” universe, the anti-matter macguffin was always the most ridiculous aspect of Brown’s original work. Tying it into the highly publicized large hadron collider in Geneva is a cute touch, but doesn’t make the use of it in an otherwise contemporary pulp religious thriller any more credible.

Already at about two hours with just the plot alone, the writers pad out the film by an additional 15-20 minutes with both fortune cookie-like ruminations on the science/faith divide and some painfully blunt monologues preaching the benefits of organized religion. Armin-Mueller Stahl and Ewan McGregor, two great actors who’ve proven themselves time and again, are stuck with most of these patronizing sermons dressed up as inopportune sagely advice.

Had it flowed naturally within the story then it would be suitable, but non-believers will see these asides as useless pandering to the faithful while believers will likely find it condescending, so who exactly is all this preaching aimed at?. Even Brown’s arguments, for all their unjustified assumptions, smartly played up the science/faith conflict – this simply castrates it with insincere ‘can we all be friends’ platitudes instead of trying to settle on a fair compromise solution.

When it forgoes its spiritual quest and remembers that it’s an action thriller first and foremost, the formula works. Much of the rather verbose and exposition-heavy first act feels somewhat stiff in its setting up of an anti-matter time bomb ticking somewhere in Vatican City during a papal enclave (the election of a new Pope by cardinals locked away in the Sistine Chapel). Yet it’s necessary to lead into the middle hour of the film, a race against the clock to save the four cardinals favored to win the papal office who are being brutally killed, mutilated and dumped one-by-one in locations across Rome every hour.

Howard makes the most of this middle hour and milks it beautifully even if the five-hour time frame for most of this action stretches beyond the ludicrous. With luxury cars racing through Rome’s crowded streets, the film switches between on-location shooting, FX-enhanced vistas, and superbly detailed film sets with such speed and smoothness that it convincingly feels as if you’re constantly on the grounds of that great European city (the CG-enhanced recreation of the inside of St. Peter’s Basilica and its sheer scale is flawless). The more frank-than-usual depiction of the Vatican, from its architectural and historical gems to its real world sociopolitical status and bureaucratic hypocrisy, is a welcome approach.

The last act does suffer somewhat from the multiple ending scenario, but so did the book and certainly the big near-ending set piece around St. Peter’s Square is superbly realized. Director Ron Howard is often criticized for his bland direction and at times the complaints are justified, but D.O.P. Salvatore Totino gives the film a strong and compelling European visual aesthetic while the editing has more fire and energy than much of Howard’s populous-aimed work. At 138 minutes though, the film feels a good twenty minutes too long and loses much of its energy about half an hour out from the actual ending.

In spite of their thin characterization, the international cast proves sturdy. A more toned than usual Hanks is thankfully devoid of the ‘Da Vinci’ haircut and spends more time running around than going into teacherly diatribes about symbols. Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer takes a little while to warm to, but ultimately comes off with a smart assertive demeanor that plays off Hanks far better than his awkward chemistry with Audrey Tatou in ‘Da Vinci’.

McGregor, armed with an only marginally successful Irish accent and the aforementioned heavy preaching, seems bored unlike Stellan SkarsgÃ¥rd who is obviously enjoying playing the grumpy head of the Swiss guard. Thure Lindhardt and Pierfrancesco Favino impress in small roles as Vatican police officers Chartrand and Olivetti respectively. Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas as the assassin delivers smooth looks and a cruel demeanor in an essentially 2-3 line role as the brutally efficient killer. Hans Zimmer’s score occasionally evokes his ‘Da Vinci’ work but definitely has more oomph to it.

Lacking the verbosity and weight of expectation of ‘Da Vinci’, Howard and co. have adapted Brown’s other Robert Langdon novel in the very way it was intended to be – as an often beautiful looking, big-budget, Hollywood action thriller. Think “National Treasure” without the snarky comedy asides and a richer locale but equally artificial in its attempts at suspense and surprise.

Aiming more to engross than provoke argument or discussion, it works as logic-free light entertainment even as it awkwardly stumbles in its attempts to please everyone and reaches conclusions both absurd and yet predictable. Its skillful execution and solid middle act push this slightly above average blockbuster fare, but it’s a film that could’ve really benefited from a few more judicious edits and changes to Brown’s original material.