Science and religion collide, commingle and eventually reach a state of peaceful coexistence in “Angels & Demons,” a follow-up to “The Da Vinci Code” in which director Ron Howard conspicuously gives top priority to the story’s beat-the-clock thriller elements. Less turgid and aggravating than its predecessor, this cleverly produced melodrama remains hamstrung by novelist’s Dan Brown’s laborious connect-the-dots plotting and the filmmakers’ prosaic literal-mindedness in the face of ripe historical antagonisms, mystery and intrigue. Although unlikely to match the $750 million-plus worldwide haul of the same team’s much-maligned 2006 “Da Vinci” sensation, this adaptation of a lesser-known Brown book will nonetheless make an unholy amount of money.
Although “Angels & Demons” was the first novel to feature Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, the film version is sensibly positioned as a sequel to “Da Vinci” in an early scene in which a Vatican emissary requests the professor’s help in spite of the existing bad blood. This sequence takes place at a Cambridge swimming pool, enabling it to exhibit Langdon (Tom Hanks) in much fitter condition than he appeared three years ago. He’s also clearly changed hairdressers, a good move.
With the last pope dead and the college of cardinals gathered in conclave to elect a new church leader, Rome enters hyper-crisis mode when four eminent cardinals are kidnapped, with the announcement that one will be killed each hour leading up to a bombing that will destroy the Vatican. The culprit, apparently, is the Illuminati, a secret society with roots in the Enlightenment that is now bent on avenging the church’s violent attacks against it more than 200 years ago.
Zipped over to Rome with less than 24 hours to piece together arcane clues as to the clerics’ whereabouts, Langdon is this time asked to put his talents in service of the Catholic Church, not to dismember it, as in “Da Vinci.” Filmmakers are currently getting lots of mileage out of how they were prevented from filming at numerous church-controlled locations in Rome, just as Catholic orgs continue to denounce the picture sight unseen — the irony being that this story takes the side of the church against those who would destroy it.
In the company of Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), who works for the CERN particle physics lab that produced the canister of antimatter that threatens to blow St. Peter’s to kingdom come, Langdon dashes from church to crypt to nave to catacomb, finding freshly killed cardinals and others about to be as he employs his unique expertise to hash out the Illuminati’s insidious plan.
Perhaps recognizing how static and talky “Da Vinci” was, Howard and lenser Salvatore Totino this time have the camera thrashing and thrusting about while keeping Langdon constantly on the move and laying Hans Zimmer’s thumping score on top. While more superficially stimulating, the adrenalized approach can’t hide the utter absurdity of a timeframe that gives the characters just an hour each time to navigate the labyrinths of the Vatican basement archives, figure out what to do next and make their way through crowds and Roman traffic to the location of the next atrocity.
While the minutes tick away, everyone in the inner circle of Vatican power comes under suspicion of being a possible infiltrator, including the late pope’s most trusted aide and now Camerlengo, the caretaker of church business in between papal tenures (Ewan McGregor); cagey old Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who’s presiding over the papal election; and the belligerent Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), head of the Swiss Guard.
Brown’s straight-line plotting, streamlined by scenarists David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, creates some impatience and a hunger for any kind of surprise. The latter is satisfied to an extent by the climax, which, however far-fetched, is visually spectacular and dramatically both evenhanded and unexpected.
Hanks is kept in motion so much, there’s hardly time for characterization as such; it’s enough that the borderline risible aspects of his character in “Da Vinci” have been eliminated. Zurer takes a while to make an impression but a thoughtful intelligence finally breaks through to favorable effect. McGregor — like Hanks, looking better than he has in his last couple of films — is OK as the custodian of church power during the traumatic transition, and Mueller-Stahl keeps his character’s hand hidden like an ace poker player.
If, as reported, the production shot in Rome for only two weeks, it sure doesn’t show; pic is saturated with local atmosphere, evidently achieved through expert location lensing combined with wizardly sleight-of-hand in the visual effects and production design, especially in the climactic section set in St. Peter’s Square. Dark exterior scenes accurately reflect the low lighting levels of much of nocturnal Rome.