MOVIE REVIEW- Opie v. Opus Dei: Howard's code for 'let down'

'No one is more worshipful of the gods of cinema than I, yet I manage to keep them separate from the God I worship in a spiritual sense. When I can't distinguish fact from fiction in the movies, I err on the side of dismissing everything I see as the product of a screenwriter's imagination.

That means I don't take The Da Vinci Code any more– or less– seriously than The Passion of the Christ. Mel Gibson's gorefest aimed at the heart and gut, while Ron Howard's thriller asks viewers to engage their brains. But both are really going for the wallet.

A thinking person's thriller– you might call it "brainsploitation"– The Da Vinci Code is based on Dan Brown's controversial novel which almost every literate person in the Western world has read. Being one of the rare exceptions, I can only judge the movie as a movie, and as such I find it wanting.

While The Da Vinci Code isn't likely to shatter anyone's faith in Jesus Christ, it will make you lose your faith in sure things. How could one of the world's most popular directors, working with one of the world's most popular stars, screw up the most popular book of the new millennium?

The most effective thrillers are the simplest ones. There's a bomb on a bus that will go off if it slows down. A cab driver is forced to chauffeur a hitman on his rounds. There's a shark in the water.

The Da Vinci Code strives for complexity as it takes the ambitious tack of using the Holy Grail as a MacGuffin, the item everyone's looking for and killing each other over. The grail turns out to be something other than what you (and Monty Python) thought it was.

It takes major sorting out, but it boils down to good guys and bad guys. The Priory of Sion (good) is a fictitious secret order that protects the Holy Grail and the secret it contains. Opus Dei (bad) is a conservative sect within the Catholic Church that, in this story, is dedicated to finding and destroying the grail so the secret dies with it, because of the impact it could have on the church.

The secret, as has been widely reported, is that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, who bore him a child, and his bloodline continues to this day.

American symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is drawn into the struggle when a curator at the Louvre is murdered, and he's implicated. The dead man's granddaughter, Sophie (Audrey Tautou), who happens to be a police cryptologist, helps Robert escape, and they spend the movie trying to unravel secrets while on the run from, among others, Silas (Paul Bettany), a self-flagellating albino monk who does dirty deeds for Opus Dei.

Is it me, or is Tom Hanks aging into Bill Murray? In any case, he's no action hero.

Ian McKellen adds life and levity to the film's central hour as Sir Leigh Teabing, a self-described "old cripple" who's obsessed with the Holy Grail for reasons that may become clear.

Unfortunately, many things may not become clear in The Da Vinci Code because Akiva Goldsman's screenplay crams in so much detail– perhaps in an effort to avoid disappointing readers of the book– that the viewers who are coming to the story cold will wish they had the luxury of pausing to absorb something or going back a few pages or chapters to recheck some facts. (That's good for repeat business and DVD sales, of course.)

The trouble is, The Da Vinci Code is full of puzzles and riddles that should be fun to try to solve but aren't. One of the main ones is a "cryptex" that must be decoded to reveal a clue– a low-tech version of trying to guess a password on a computer. Besides not being engaging or audience-friendly, it ignores the fact that the code word should probably be in Latin.

The phrase "beneath the Rose" is interpreted so many different ways that you're not likely to care about the final version, which comes at the end of a 20-minute anticlimax after the last action sequence is over. It's preceded by the revelation of a surprise that shouldn't be very surprising by then.

The violence, especially what Silas inflicts on himself (the S/M crowd will love it!), pushes the boundaries of the PG-13 rating; but there's not much excitement in the action scenes. Howard and Goldsman– who previously teamed on A Beautiful Mind– pour on the mystery so heavily in early scenes you may still be trying to dig your way out by the end. It's hard to appreciate when a character's allegiance changes when we don't understand what it was in the first place.

Perhaps the most impressive scenes are some spectacular throwaway flashbacks to ancient times.

If The Da Vinci Code worked its pretensions would make it an above-average thriller. Since it doesn't, they only weigh it down. It's not an awful movie, but let's hope there's not a greater disappointment this summer.