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Published: Thursday, 5/14/2009

Movie review: Angels & Demons ***

BY KIRK BAIRD
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Angels & Demons is far from a lighthearted romp, but compared to its dour predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, it just seems that way.

Dan Brown's latest novel-to-film adventure of Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is a popcorn thriller that, even with the weight of its plot - the possible destruction of Vatican City - never takes itself too seriously.

Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious iconology and symbology, has even discovered a sense of humor, thanks to Angels & Demons screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman. And director Ron Howard, who seems to have a better handle on the source material this time, keeps things moving at a fairly brisk pace for nearly two and a half hours. In keeping with the film's title, Howard also can't help including close-ups of winged angels and scowling devils, which often serve as symbolic transitions between scenes.

The filmmakers aren't the only ones who have lightened up.

The Vatican apparently approves of this Langdon adventure, viewing it as harmless entertainment and not an affront to Christianity.

Unlike The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons isn't so much about the past as it is the present, as Langdon races to stop a centuries-old secret society, the Illuminati, bent on revenge against the Catholic Church.

The Illuminati was formed by scientists and teachers who fought to expose scientific falsehoods taught by the church, while the church countered with public executions of the Illuminati, driving its remaining members underground.

For hundreds of years the Illuminati has been dormant, leading most scholars to dismiss as legend the belief that the society has infiltrated corporations, governments, and even religious institutions on a global scale. Then a video is delivered to the Vatican during the election of a new pope, a ritual known as the papal conclave. The Illuminati has returned and enacted a sinister 24-hour plot to kidnap and execute four cardinals, and then plans to detonate antimatter, which will produce an explosion powerful enough to wipe clean Vatican City and much of Rome.

In desperation, the Vatican turns to Langdon, the man who helped dispel many of the church's core beliefs a few years earlier. (Angels & Demons was written before The Da Vinci Code, but Howard opted to set the movie after the events of the first film to create more tension between Langdon and members of the church.)

Langdon spends much of Angels & Demons interpreting symbols and searching for clues to find hidden Illuminati locations in Vatican City. He's aided by Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a scientist involved in the creation of the antimatter and the only one who can prevent it from exploding, as well as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), who is in charge of the Vatican until a new pope is elected.

Hanks' mannered temperament and detached emotions as Langdon remain an acquired taste, but at least he's found his sense of humor. As with the female lead in The Da Vinci Code, Agent Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), Zurer's role is largely forgettable in the scope of everything else that is happening; in fact, it's often difficult to keep up with the film's twisty plot. And, as Langdon knows too well, not all allies are to be trusted.

The detailed and often breathless exploration of the past is what made The Da Vinci Code compelling, especially when compared to other by-the-numbers blockbuster thrillers. Historical inaccuracies be damned, The Da Vinci Code was fun.

Angels & Demons doesn't play as loose with the facts this time, but the film isn't as much fun, either. The truth is that The Da Vinci Code is simply a better story, which makes for a better movie. Even with the gravitas of the plot, Angels & Demons never sucks you in the way the first film did.

There is a message to this film, too, which Howard can't resist delivering to The Da Vinci Code detractors. In one scene, Langdon explains to Vatican police the history of why many male statues in the Vatican were castrated by a pope hundreds of years ago.

A detective then asks Langdon if he is anti-church, to which he replies, "No, I'm anti-vandalism."

The statement is subtle and clear. The film isn't meant to be an anti-Christianity diatribe, but a pointed reminder of religion's misuse by some, and misguided efforts by others. That same sentiment also applies to Angels & Demons' over-arching theme of science versus religion.

In the 21st century, the film suggests, science and religion should be able to coexist, with religious dogma not impeding scientific progress, and science not bulldozing over the ethics and beliefs of others in its race to the next big cure.

The fact that the Vatican didn't decry Angels & Demons suggests the movie is on to something. And that the church, along with Langdon, also knows how to laugh.

Contact Kirk Baird at:

kbaird@theblade.com

or 419-724-6734.



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