EmptyScience or religion? Wait, there's room for both. If the world could be rendered as simple as "Angels & Demons," we'd all be living in a less confusing place. Taking to heart critics' lament that the first Dan Brown novel-to-film "The Da Vinci Code" was talky, static and arcane, director Ron Howard and his crew have worked hard to make Professor Robert Langdon's return a thrilling, faster-paced walk in the park.
It will be difficult for this papal mystery, beautifully shot in Rome and Rome-like locations, to gross less than its phenomenal predecessor, which topped $750 million worldwide for Sony Pictures in 2006.
Plucking the same violent, occult strings as "Da Vinci" while avoiding its leadenness, "Angels" keeps the action coming for the best part of 139 minutes. Scripters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have taken a firmer hand with Brown's material. The opening scene, for example, omits the hypersonic Vatican jet that transports crack Harvard symbologist Langdon (Tom Hanks) from Cambridge to Geneva in an hour, opting for more conventional means to get him to Rome and into the thick of the action.
Although this attack of realism might disappoint the book's die-hard fans, it pays off in depicting the Vatican as a fairly "normal" nation-state, not as some all-powerful SMERSH-like nemesis. And in the end, most of those who attacked the film before seeing it on grounds of its being anti-Catholic will have to eat their words as the warm-hearted ending casts a rosy glow around the College of Cardinals, the papacy and the faithful throngs in St. Peter's Square.
But back to the plot. The pope is dead, and the Catholic Church is preparing to elect a new one. The handsome young Camerlengo Patrick (Ewan McGregor), who was raised by the late pope, is heartbroken.
Whisked to the Vatican at the behest of Inspector Olivetti (fine Italian thesp Pierfrancesco Favino), Langdon learns that the four cardinals who are the most likely papal candidates have been kidnapped. In Vatican security, he meets scientist Vittoria Vetra (sultry Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), privy to insider knowledge about how a cylinder of anti-matter was brutally stolen from the Cern labs in Geneva. It's child's play to put two and two together and realize that the Vatican is about to be blown up by the ticking bomb of anti-matter.
Into this futuristic world of protons and neutrons erupts the long-forgotten religious cult of the Illuminati, a group of 17th century forward thinkers who championed scientific truth and were forced underground by the Church. Now they're back, in the mysterious person of a fanatic assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas.)
Aided by Olivetti and the earnest young camerlengo, while hindered by deadpan Swiss Guards commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), Langdon goes about his semiotic business of pulling clues out of thin air.
The story line is brilliantly simplified into Langdon's search for the four cardinals, with Vetra and Olivetti as his sidekicks. His job is to find angel sculptures inside churches, which point to other churches. Police cars race dangerously through the crowded Roman streets, always arriving five minutes too late to prevent the grisly death of an aged cardinal who has been branded with the word Earth, Air, Fire or Water. Hanks does a likable job of glossing over every implausibility, allowing the action to climax in gut-churning shots borrowed from cheap horror films.
Hanks fits more comfortably into the role of Langdon here, taking a moment to deliver some friendly one-liners. If "Da Vinci" was criticized for the lack of sexual chemistry between its protagonists, "Angels" simply refuses to suggest any kind of romance between Langdon and Vetra. Their total lack of a relationship is so stunningly successful that it passes unnoticed.
This allows Koepp and Goldsman to concentrate on what the audience really wants to see: burning cardinals, spectacular explosions and incomparable studio reconstructions of Baroque Rome. (partialdiff)