“Angels & Demons” is one of the more cheerfully dumb thrillers I’ve seen in a good long while. Every moment is more preposterous than the next, and after a brief period, the absurdity becomes oddly comforting. It’s a lovely looking film, with authentic looking locations and a fair number of character actors who are obviously trying to replenish their Roth IRAs. It’s not a good movie, but it’s one of the best kinds of bad movies – a trashy pulp fiction that wholly embraces its own shoddiness.
Following the theft of a groundbreaking piece of anti-matter, and the kidnapping of the top four contenders in line to succeed the newly dead Pope, the Vatican calls in renowned “Harvard Symbologist” Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, with less hair, less gut, and more humor this time around). Although the church didn’t care much for his last insertion into church politics (they too found it self-serious, too long, and dreadfully boring), they need his help none the less. Now Langdon and Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) have only five hours to decipher the locations of the missing Cardinals as well as the location of the anti-matter, which has been made into a bomb that will wipe out Vatican City at the stroke of midnight.
While this fast-moving film is technically better than “The Da Vinci Code,” that’s basically like stating that a firing squad is more merciful than a hanging. Both films use pseudo-religious legend to pretty up glorified Hardy Boys mystery stories. What makes this sequel an improvement is that director Ron Howard is (slightly) less afraid to acknowledge the silliness of the original novel. Unlike “The Da Vinci Code,” “Angels & Demons” did not have to be treated like a sacred text, with all the reverence accorded to such beloved works of literature. The inclusion of the infamous “Illuminati” society is a welcome touch. They are always terrific go-to guys for mysterious skulduggery, mainly because “Illuminati” is a really cool name for a super secret organization of evildoing. Who wouldn’t want to say that they belong to an organization called the Illuminati?
Much of the running time still involves Langdon glancing at a random painting or symbol and deducing incredibly complicated schemes. Think of that early scene in the 1966 “Batman” movie where Batman and Robin deduce who’s behind the big scheme (“It happened at sea… sea? C for Catwoman!”) and you have an idea of what this entire movie’s investigative process is like. Over and over again, Langdon turns coal into diamonds, allowing the heroes to race to the very spot where the next Cardinal is set to be murdered. Everyone else basically sits back and reacts, although Ayelet Zurer has much more to do than Audrey Tautou did in “The Da Vinci Code.” Refreshingly, at no point does Hanks pull a helpless Zurer along as they race to or from danger.
Stellan Skarsgard does little more than scowl and occasionally impede progress (no wonder he recently exclaimed that the author of the original books, Dan Brown, is a pretty terrible writer). Nikolaj Lie Kaas makes a pretty compelling antagonist until he is forced to deliver a trite monologue in a speaking voice that isn’t nearly as cool as it should be (parents be warned: this is a far more violent and gruesome picture than “The Da Vinci Code,” and it’s probably the least justified PG-13 since “Vantage Point”). Ewan McGregor has some nice moments as an empathetic priest torn between duty and apparent morality, although his climactic actions form the most unintentionally hilarious moment since Sam Elliot and Nicolas Cage drag-raced at the end of “Ghost Rider.”
Although “Angels & Demons” is a more cinematic story than the first picture, it is not enough of an improvement to merit continuing the series. While there is less reverence this time around, Ron Howard and company still seem afraid to completely embrace the tawdry and trashy dime-store nature of Dan Brown’s adventure novels. Plus, the film is about twenty minutes too long and still takes itself just a little too seriously.