By Christy Lemire
HOLLYWOOD — Blessedly, “Angels & Demons” is more entertaining and less self-serious than its predecessor, the dense and dreary yet enormously successful “The Da Vinci Code.”
In adapting another of author Dan Brown’s religious-mystery page turners, director Ron Howard wisely gave in to its beat-the-clock thriller elements, which makes for a more enjoyable summer movie experience. The brouhaha has long since abated among Catholics, albinos, “Da Vinci Code” purists, what have you, and all that’s left is air-conditioned escapism.
But its twists, turns and revelations are just as ridiculous as those in the first film — perhaps even more so — and it breezes through arcane details with just as much dizzying speed.
Besides Howard, the key players are back from that 2006 international hit, including Tom Hanks as Harvard professor and symbologist Robert Langdon and Akiva Goldsman as screenwriter (with David Koepp collaborating on the script). Joining them are Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgaard and Armin Mueller-Stahl among the estimable supporting cast, all of whom have enjoyed the benefits of stronger material but manage to supply gravitas nonetheless.
Although “Angels & Demons” preceded “The Da Vinci Code” in book form, the film is positioned as a sequel to take advantage of the strained relationship between Langdon and the Vatican — only this time, it’s his expertise the folks there reluctantly need.
With the pope dead and the College of Cardinals about to meet in conclave to choose a replacement, a secret society known as the Illuminati has kidnapped the four likeliest candidates. Howard and cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who also shot “The Da Vinci Code,” cloak all these proceedings in dark, ominous shadows, and Hans Zimmer’s score rather obviously adds to the feeling of foreboding.
Langdon is brought in to decipher clues at various churches and historical sites throughout Rome to prevent the killing of the cardinals, one every hour, leading to a bomb explosion at the Vatican. He gets help along the way from Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), an Italian scientist who worked at the lab where the combustible vial of anti-matter was stolen for the planned attack. Her arrival also allows for such standard action-picture dialogue as, “Can you deactivate the device?”
Never mind that Vittoria is sexy and mysterious, not middle-aged and frumpy. (And we gotta say, Hanks is looking pretty good here, too. The first time we see him, he’s tanned and trim, swimming laps in a Speedo in the Harvard pool.) Never mind that the time frame is impossible — that they must dash across the city at night, with its narrow streets and tourist traps packed with visitors, in time to stop each killing. And never mind that one person appears to be responsible for orchestrating these elaborate and very public deaths.
But wait, we haven’t even gotten to the most laughable part of the story yet! We won’t give it away entirely for those who haven’t read the book. We’ll just say it involves an exploding helicopter and a crucial character parachuting out of it just in time. Because it is summer, after all, despite the aura of religious solemnity.
“Angels & Demons,” a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material. Running time: 138 minutes. Two stars out of four.