Angels & Demons

Cast:
Tom Hanks as Robert Langdon
Ewan McGregor as Camerlengo Patrick McKenna
Ayelet Zurer as Vittoria Vetra
Stellan Skarsgård as Commander Richter
Pierfrancesco Favino as Inspector Olivetti
Nikolaj Lie Kaas as Assassin
Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss
Thure Lindhardt as Chartrand
David Pasquesi as Claudio Vincenzi
Cosimo Fusco as Father Simeon
Victor Alfieri as Lieutenant Valenti
Franklin Amobi as Cardinal Lamasse
Curt Lowens as Cardinal Ebner
Bob Yerkes as Cardinal Guidera
Marc Fiorini as Cardinal Baggia

Directed by Ron Howard

Summary:
As rare as it is for a sequel to surpass its predecessor, remaining faithful to stronger source material makes Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ second Dan Brown adaptation a far superior effort in every possible way.

Story:
The Pope is dead, and Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has been called upon by the Vatican to help find four kidnapped Cardinals who are next in line to become Pope. Apparently, the responsible party is the Illuminati, a secret society of scientists who have resurfaced with plans to destroy the Catholic Church by blowing up Vatican City with an anti-matter bomb. With the help of CERN scientist Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) and the pope’s assistant, the Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor), Langdon must find the cardinals and the bomb in order to restore the papal electoral process.

Analysis:
After the disappointment that was “The Da Vinci Code,” fans of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels might have trouble building the confidence that Ron Howard and Tom Hanks can do a better job when tackling Brown’s earlier novel, which first introduced the symbologist. Those who’ve actually read “Angels & Demons” are well aware how much stronger the source material might be for a movie, since it’s more of a race against time than a heady study of religious bloodlines and such. Surprisingly, the results are quite fantastic, effectively falling somewhere between the Hannibal Lecter and the Bourne films in terms of creating an exciting action-thriller amidst an impressive setting full of historical culture.

The attention to detail Howard has paid to creating a suitable environment for Robert Langdon’s second screen adventure is evident from the opening scene where we see how the Vatican deals with the sudden death of the Pope and preparations to elect his replacement via the conclave of Cardinals. Knowing that Robert Langodon is one of the premiere experts on the Illuminati, the secret society of scientists taking responsibility, so the Pope’s personal assistant Camerlengo Patrick McKenna calls upon symbologist Robert Langdon to solve the kidnappings. Meanwhile, a small amount of highly-destructive anti-matter has been stolen from CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, and the lab’s primary physicist Dr. Vittoria Vetra learns that it’s been hidden somewhere at the Vatican, set to explode at midnight, taking out a good chunk of Vatican City. The duo have roughly four hours to find the missing Cardinals and the bomb.

Realizing how badly “Da Vinci Code” dragged, Ron Howard learns from that film’s mistakes and keeps the talking to a minimum, instead focusing on Langdon and Vitra’s race against time to decypher historical clues to find the missing Cardinals. The original novel has so many exciting moments and Howard captures all of them well, but he also maintains the detailed exploration of the Papal electoral process that made Brown’s novel such riveting reading. Similarly, almost all of the themes of faith vs. science from Brown’s novel are retained, and yet the film moves at a brisk pace without cutting corners from the novel.

It’s hard to imagine Tom Hanks being the weakest link in his own movie, but it does seem like he’s coasting through this role, similar to the way he did in “Da Vinci Code.” Certainly the role never really delivers much of a challenge in terms of expressing emotion. Langdon does look better with shorter hair, but Hanks still has trouble overcoming the stigma of essentially playing Langdon as an extension of his usual screen persona rather than as a very specific character.

The thought of spending over two hours with Hanks as Langdon might seem daunting, but the film often branches off to follow Vittoria and the Carmelengo’s own attempts to solve the mysteries behind the Illuminati’s reemergence. In contrast to the supporting cast of “Da Vinci Code,” this one is clearly able to carry scenes without Hanks, although Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer has certainly had stronger roles than this one. Wisely, Howard shies away from the novel’s romantic digressions, instead keeping the relationship between Langford and Vetra purely platonic, maybe because the two actors don’t spend as much time on screen as Hanks did with Tautou in “Da Vinci Code.” On the other hand, Ewan McGregor is quite convincing as the young priest who’s been given the responsibility to maintain order after the death of his Papal mentor, bringing all of his screen charisma to what is essentially a supporting role to make Carmelengo as rich a character as he was in the novel.

Aside from the Illuminati’s assassin, who mainly remains in shadows, there aren’t necessarily good or bad guys, just a lot of grey area as everyone around the case is trying to do what’s best for the Church and for themselves — not necessarily in that order. Talented character actors like Stellan Skarsgård as the head of the Vatican’s Swiss Guard and Armin Mueller-Stahl as the cardinal in charge of the electoral process make it clear that not everything is as cut-and-dried as one might think from the generally simple plot.

The increased scope and scale of the movie makes a big difference, both clearly evident whenever we witness the vast crowds gathering in St. Peter’s Square awaiting the results of the Papal election. The nearly flawless production design is impressive, especially for enthusiasts of ancient Roman sculptures and architecture, creating a beautiful backdrop for Langdon’s latest mission. When you add Hans Zimmer’s gorgeous score, the results are more along the lines of Ridley Scott’s “Hannibal,” a strong piece of filmmaking that looks and feels like a big summer movie, but maintains the culture and history in the novel, making it one of the classier summer releases in recent memory.

Despite being over two hours long, the movie rarely drags or feels unnecessarily drawn out, even if there are certainly parts of Brown’s book that could have easily been streamlined or omitted. Even those who’ve read the book might be slightly stymied by the film’s main climax and the twist-filled epilogue that follows, which differs slightly from the novel’s ending, but it does keep you guessing even when you think you know where things are going. One of the more ridiculous moments in the novel been changed, possibly because Howard realized how silly it might look after spending so much time establishing realism for what some might find to be a hard premise to swallow. But again, if you were able to suspend your disbelief to enjoy the book, then the fact it actually does work and look good on the screen is a bonus.

The Bottom Line:
If you’re a fan of Dan Brown’s novel, you should be much happier with how faithfully it’s been translated to the screen and how much better the results work as a movie compared to “The Da Vinci Code,” maintaining all the excitement and intricacies that made it such a good read.

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