Friday, May 15, 2009

Angels & Demons: Pope-a-dope

Angels & Demons (2009) • View trailer for Angels & Demons
2.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.15.09
Buy DVD: Angels & Demons • Buy Blu-Ray: Angels & Demons [Blu-ray]

In Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep  most famously adapted for the big screen in 1946, with Humphrey Bogart playing Philip Marlowe  the author rather sloppily left one of the killings unexplained. Owen Taylor, played by Dan Wallace in the movie, is found murdered in a car that has been pushed into the bay.

Chandler was embarrassed to admit, after the fact, that even he had no idea who killed poor Taylor; the film adaptation also fails to clarify this little detail.
And you think you had a bad day? Having arrived just a little too late, historian
Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) look
up in horror as they discover the body of one of four kidnapped cardinals. But
this sick form of "cardinal roulette" is just the prologue to the evening's biggest
threat: the pending annihilation of Vatican City.

About midway through director Ron Howard's adaptation of novelist Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, a rather convoluted attempt is made to snuff Tom Hanks' Robert Langdon. You'll eventually realize, during the story's hyperactive third-act wrap-up, that you have no idea who might have been responsible for that murder attempt.

And that's just one of the many problems plaguing this laughable follow-up to the 2006 film adaptation of Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

In fairness, most of this new film's flaws can be attributed to Brown himself, and his overwrought, thunderously unreadable prose and hackneyed narrative. He's a truly terrible writer, and the success of his books  and the 2006 film version of Da Vinci  derives more from the public's fascination with arcane Catholic Church-themed conspiracy theories, and less from Brown's skill as a storyteller.

Angels and Demons  actually published prior to Da Vinci Code, but treated cinematically as a sequel to that subsequent book  is even more ludicrous than Brown's other best-selling potboiler.

Unacceptably ludicrous, as it turns out.

The willing suspension of disbelief is a delicate thing. Despite the White Queen's insistence, in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, that she can believe in "as many as six impossible things before breakfast," wise writers understand the need to make readers  or viewers  accept no more than one massively impossible concept at a time.

Start then with the Illuminati: the ultra-secret society tagged by Brown as the threat driving the action in Angels and Demons. Fair enough; members of the mysterious Illuminati have been so used by numerous authors, and in all sorts of ways.

Unfortunately, the additional gimmick that propels this film's action also makes it collapse: the fact that everything takes place in a single evening.

Consider: Four cardinals  the preferiti whose number include the man probably destined to replace the recently deceased pope  have been kidnapped by parties unknown, who have threatened to kill one cardinal at the top of each hour, and then destroy all of Vatican City with an explosion of anti-matter, a quantity of which has been stolen from CERN, the massive particle physics laboratory in Switzerland (and there's another tough narrative nut to swallow).

Langdon, swiftly flown to Italy from the States, spends the entire film dashing from one end of Rome to the other, trying to decipher centuries-old clues that will identify the four churches where each of the kidnapped cardinals is to be killed.

So, given such a time-critical crisis, and confronted already with the body of the first cardinal  killed as promised  what would Langdon's logical next step be?

Why, naturally he'd stop and waste time by embarking on a long and tedious discussion of Catholic/Illuminati history with his new female companion, physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer).

Oh, puh-leaze!

But even if Langdon were moving as rapidly as possible, it's blindingly ridiculous to believe that he could pack so much travel and activity into each 60-minute deadline, let alone the many conversations, digressions and arguments, not to mention the quieter moments when he somehow also finds the time to twice visit the Vatican's ultra-secret library (entry granted only by permission from His Eminence).

Hell, have you seen the traffic conditions in Rome? I don't care if Langdon does have a police car escort most of the time  and that's most of the time, mind you, not all the time  it still would be physically impossible!

Point being, Langdon somehow works about a day's worth of activity into each 60-minute deadline period.

And that's all screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman would have needed to change, to make this film at least reasonably plausible: Stage the action over the course of four days, rather than four hours.

But no. Apparently responding to the complaint that his handling of Da Vinci Code was "talky," Howard turned this sequel into an amped-up countdown experience. Even with Hanks' still-frequent lectures, it feels like he and Zurer spend the entire film sprinting from one location to the next. Pause for close-up of horrified reaction, then sprint again.

Honestly, I haven't seen this much legwork since 1999's Run Lola Run ... but that enjoyable little flick clocked in at an economical 81 minutes. This sucker is a full hour longer.

I'm amazed the actors didn't develop shin splints.

In fairness, Hanks and Zurer contribute far more gravity and credibility than this purple melodrama deserves, and they're surrounded by a strong supporting cast. Ewan McGregor is particularly memorable as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, who becomes acting head of Vatican City until a new pope is selected.

Far more sympathetic of real-world issues than many of his peers, McKenna is willing to work with Langdon, as opposed to "blaming" him for the events detailed in Da Vinci Code.

Armin Mueller-Stahl plays it close to the chest as the venerable Cardinal Strauss, who gets our early vote as the likely "Illuminati infiltrator" up to no good. Stellan Skarsgaard snarls through his part as the antagonistic head of the Swiss Guard, charged with protecting the pope and the College of Cardinals. (He hates Langdon.)

Pierfrancesco Favino is much better modulated as Inspector Ernesto Olivetti, head of the Gendarmarie force that polices everything else within the Vatican walls. (He likes Langdon.) Thure Lindhardt is equally credible as Chartrand, a Vatican officer who initially distrusts Langdon but gradually comes to respect this American interloper.

Hanks has a better handle on Langdon this time out, although the film takes blatantly obvious pains to introduce the character while he's swimming laps, as if to demonstrate that the actor has shed some of the weight that has, of late, made him look a bit puffy. And thank God Langdon found a better hair stylist; the 'do he sported in the first film was just plain silly.

Zurer does her best with frequently impossible dialogue; the poor woman is saddled with as much scientific technobabble as you'd expect from half a dozen Star Trek episodes.

Coincidence piles atop contrivance, which in turn gets dumped into a stew of unlikely happenstance; the result defies explanation long before this story reaches its just-plain-nuts denouement. (One of the book's most hilariously preposterous climactic details wisely was removed from this film, so I suppose we should be grateful for small favors.)

Hell, we even get the "assassin with a code," who rather improbably refuses to shoot Langdon and Vetra at one point, because " don't have guns, and I wasn't hired to kill you." (Yeah, right.) Max von Sydow might've pulled off that exact scene in 1975's Three Days of the Condor, but he's a much better actor than Nikolaj Lie Kaas, cast here as the shadowy "Mr. Gray."

Honestly, I feel sorry for Howard and Hanks, because this film version of Angels and Demons was made not because it's a good story  it absolutely is not  but because their team-up on The Da Vinci Code made umpety-squintillion bucks, and a sequel was inevitable. (Well, OK, only three-quarters of a billion dollars, but that's still a lot.)

Faced with the choice of being involved with the sequel, and therefore maintaining at least a semblance of control, or watching it get hacked up by other parties, Howard and Hanks apparently made a deal with the devil they knew.

Well, y'know what? It was the wrong decision.

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