By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated May 13, 2009 at 04:00 AM EDT
Tom Hanks, Angels & Demons
Credit: Zade Rosenthal

Angels & Demons

  • Movie

Let others sermonize about Angels & Demons. Let voices rise on matters of truth versus fiction, entertainment versus religious heresy, book plot versus screen adaptation, and old hairdo versus new coif in Tom Hanks’ portrayal of heroic Harvard scholar Robert Langdon, previously seen irking the Vatican in The Da Vinci Code. What matters to this secular tourist visiting a high altar of bombastic filmmaking is whether this rococo religio-action pic holds together on its own cinematic terms. Lord knows, for all the provocation of its bloodlines-of-Jesus subject matter, the movie version of The Da Vinci Code fell apart.

So half a hallelujah — this one does work, mostly. At least until the end, when the climactic Hail Mary plot twist might try the patience of a saint, Angels & Demons barrels along with a confidence — and, more fundamentally, a pulse — missing from director Ron Howard’s first encounter with the best-selling novels of Dan Brown. True, the new movie is an opulent-bordering-on-hysterical mass of chitchat and chase scenes. Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman pack in highfalutin lectures about art history between gory murders (particularly of men of God) staged with a lust that might challenge a parent’s faith in PG-13. But at least there’s forward movement here, an energy focused by the necessity of managing two plotlines of equal urgency: Cardinals gathered in Vatican City must elect a new pope following the death of a beloved pontiff. And a ticking time bomb planted by enemies of the church must be found before Rome is blown to kingdom come.

As readers are already aware, Langdon is brought in to decipher telltale squiggles that turn out to be the marks of the Illuminati, an ancient secret brotherhood of wily church haters. (The Vatican hates the Illuminati right back.) Inevitably, the characters who surround the professor have been assembled to lead us astray — to confound our reading of good and evil. It’s all the more important, then, that each costar look impressive against a backdrop of lovingly photographed crypts, catacombs, and streets. Ewan McGregor favors a fervent, pious look as the priest who, following the pope’s death, acts as head of Vatican City until a successor is chosen. Stellan Skarsgard exaggerates his sour puss as the grumpy head of the Swiss Guard, which is devoted to the pope’s protection. Settling for one of his reliably deadpan expressions that mean his man could be good, bad, or both, Armin Mueller-Stahl plays Cardinal Strauss, a smooth old operator in bright red clergy wear.

In contrast, there’s little doubt about the goodness (and gorgeousness) of Vittoria, a smart, capable, and sexy-but-demure scientist portrayed by Munich‘s Ayelet Zurer. (Vittoria’s feminine role is to listen to Langdon explain stuff — stuff she usually already knows but that the audience needs to learn — and occasionally to do some light Latin translation.) By the way, the charismatic guy you won’t take your eyes off, the one who plays an assassin, is the great young Danish actor Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Open Hearts, Brothers), who’s due for stardom.

They’re a colorful lot, these angelic and demonic players. But there’d be no point revisiting Dan Brown’s Vatican without Hanks: He’s reliable and businesslike, as Da Vinci Code viewers remember him, and he does a nimble impersonation of a resourceful scholar trapped, at one point, in an airless library. But his greatest trick may be one of humankind’s simplest: the ability to walk and talk at the same time. Or, in this case, to tear ass and expound simultaneously on church history without sacrificing speed for intelligibility. By Da Vinci Code standards, this counts as a miracle. B?

Angels & Demons

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 138 minutes
  • Ron Howard