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Heaven and Hell

Angels & Demons has it all
By JEFFREY GANTZ  |  May 15, 2009
3.0 3.0 Stars

VIDEO: The trailer for Angels & Demons

Angels & Demons | Directed by Ron Howard | Written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, from the novel by Dan Brown | with Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, and Armin Mueller-Stahl | Sony Pictures | 138 minutes
The first adaptation of a Dan Brown pulper, Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code (2006), was a patronizing lecture delivered by a know-it-all academic who hooked up with a descendant of Jesus to uncover the Church's secret history. The second, also directed by Howard, is a James Bond film crossed with The Robe as directed by Michelangelo — Caravaggio, that is.

Tom Hanks is back as Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon, but the filmmakers have ditched the long hair and allowed Hanks to look like an early-fiftysomething (which he is) instead of The Da Vinci Code's 40ish hipster wanna-be. His co-star, the Israeli-born Ayelet Zurer, plays a particle physicist and acts like one. Langdon's knowledge of symbols (some of it elementary) is still essential to the script, but here he's less preacher and more puzzle solver. Throw in a plot that careers all over Rome, a soundtrack that's Carl Orff on steroids, and an antimatter explosion whose roiling sky would make Tintoretto jealous and you have a Baroque goodie that mostly justifies its extravagant conceits.

Dan Brown being, like Ian Fleming, a formula writer, we have the same set-up as in The Da Vinci Code: a prominent figure is murdered and his daughter (or granddaughter) teams up with Langdon because only they (mostly he) can reveal the truth (and perhaps save the world). In Angels & Demons (which Brown published in 2000, three years before The Da Vinci Code), the victim is a Geneva physicist who's been working with antimatter; a device he's created is stolen, and the thief, claiming to represent a 17th-century group of Galileo sympathizers called the Illuminati, is going to use it to blow up St. Peter's at midnight. That's just the coup de grâce, however. The College of Cardinals is about to go into conclave to elect a new pope; the thief has kidnapped the top four candidates and is promising to execute them, one each hour beginning at 8 pm, at the "altars of science." Langdon and Vittoria Vetra (Zurer) have to scour Rome to find those altars, prevent the executions, and discover where in the Vatican the deadly antimatter is concealed.

Some elements of Brown's error-riddled 500-page book have been jettisoned: CERN director Maximilian Kohler is gone, and the irritating BBC team of Gunther Glick and Chinita Macri, and the deceased pope's backstory, and Langdon's impossible plunge into the Tiber. The kidnapper/thief (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) is no longer an Arab type with sexual designs on Vittoria; there's no sex in the film (and hardly any women). A major plot alteration means we no longer have to believe that the Piazza Navona would be deserted at 11 on a fine spring night. Some irritations remain: why must Langdon make another time-consuming visit to the Vatican Secret Archives to discover what any tourist can find on page 225 of the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide: Rome?

And then there's Brown's sophomoric schism between religion and science. The actors — who include Ewan McGregor as a very earnest Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, Pierfrancesco Favino as a more respectful (to Langdon) Inspector Olivetti, Stellan Skarsgård as a scornful Commander Richter (the film's version of Captain Rocher), and Armin Mueller-Stahl as a kindly Cardinal Strauss (Cardinal Mortati in the book) — do their best to bridge it. Hanks and Zurer even bring some humor (and just a hint of romance) to the teaming of Langdon and Vittoria. The result nicely balances faith and skepticism, good and evil, Heaven and Hell.

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