MOVIE REVIEW- Post-<i>DaVinci </i>delight: <i>Angels &amp; Demons</i> done right


Ron Howard faced an interesting dilemma in approaching his follow-up to The Da Vinci Code: If it's broke but people like it, do you still fix it?

Da Vinci was a lousy movie, the worst of Howard's directing career, but it was fabulously successful, thanks largely to the popularity of Dan Brown's source novel. (Pissing off the Pope didn't hurt either.)

To Howard's credit, he's fixed what was broken. The result deserves even more success, even if the title lacks the same cachet.

Angels & Demons is based on an earlier novel by Brown and involves the same protagonist, Harvard symbologist Prof. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks). The movie is established as a sequel by references to previous events that left Langdon unpopular but "formidable" in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church.

The church needs Langdon's help this time. The College of Cardinals is meeting to elect a new pope after the death of the previous pontiff, but someone has kidnapped the four leading contenders (how they managed it, when the Vatican is shown to be a well-guarded fortress, is never explained) and threatens to kill one an hour, after which "Vatican City will be consumed by light."

The latter threat implicates the Illuminati, a defunct and– until now– secret society that was outlawed by the church in the 17th century for its pro-science stand. Apparently it's been resurrected– something the church believes in.

They can carry out their heavy threat about light because they've stolen a canister of antimatter, an "extremely combustible substance," from a Swiss research facility. The battery that's keeping it stable should die around midnight, along with everyone within a wide radius.

In pursuit of the antimatter is research physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer); her expertise offers the perfect excuse to have another hot Eurochick tag along with Langdon.

The killing isn't scheduled to start until 8pm, which gives the Vatican time to fly Langdon over in a private jet. The wealth of the church is indicated, sometimes subtly, throughout the film. Even though they're the good guys this time, the script isn't above a few potshots, including heavy smoking among the cardinals and showing how a previous pope "unmanned" a number of statues, to which fig leaves were added later.

The hunt for a canister echoes the current season of 24, so much so I began to think it's canisters themselves, not their contents, of which we should beware. This "very special episode" condenses four hours into about half that length, with the sun setting abruptly sometime between 8 and 9.

Hanks is no Kiefer Sutherland, for better and worse. Langdon doesn't approach his work with the same intensity as Jack Bauer, and you know he'd never torture anyone because he's so likable.

With extras in every crowd scene looking suspicious, it doesn't take much to make us wonder which of the supporting characters is the inside man on this inside job.

Ewan McGregor plays Fr. Patrick McKenna, the Camerlengo– the dude who runs the Vatican until the new pope is in place. Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl) stands to be elected if the frontrunners are out of the running. Cmdr. Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) heads the Swiss Guard, one of several security forces that compete or cooperate to protect the Vatican. The others are also represented, and any of them could be working for the other side.

Nikolaj Lie Kaas plays the assassin we see, but he's obviously just a hired hand.

Most of the film consists of Langdon following ancient clues to arrive at the various murder scenes just a little too late. The novelty wears off by the third one, and we find ourselves looking forward to the Big Bang, but it's a crackling good ride to that point, and we know there's more to come.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Angels & Demons is the production design, recreating or imagining Vatican and church locations that were off limits to the filmmakers.

The script is credited to David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman. Since Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind) flew solo on The Da Vinci Code, we can assume he did the heavy lifting on adapting the novel while Koepp (Jurassic Park) beefed up the entertainment. Together, they've made it simple enough for idiots like me to understand while also making it sound intelligent with all sorts of religious and scientific gobbledygook.

Quizzed about his personal beliefs, Langdon admits, "Faith is a gift that I have yet to receive." Angels & Demons may not help you nonbelievers find God, but it will make you a believer in the power of cinema.