ANGELS & DEMONS (director: Ron Howard; screenwriters: David Koepp/Akiva Goldsman/based on the novel by Dan Brown; cinematographer: Salvatore Totino; editors: Dan Hanley/Mike Hill; music: Hans Zimmer; cast: Tom Hanks (Prof. Robert Langdon), Ewan McGregor (Camerlengo Patrick McKenna), Ayelet Zurer (Dr. Vittoria Vetra), Stellan Skarsgard (Commander Richter), Pierfrancesco Favino (Inspector Ernesto Olivetti), Nikolaj Lie Kaas (Assassin/Mr. Gray), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Cardinal Strauss); Runtime: 140; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Brian Grazer/Ron Howard/John Calley; Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment; 2009)
“A lurid conspiracy murder tale that’s decent for the first hour and then moves into the realm of the ridiculous.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Ron Howard’s (“Frost/Nixon”/”Cinderella Man”/”Cocoon”) follow-up to The Da Vinci Code is a lurid conspiracy murder tale that’s decent for the first hour and then moves into the realm of the ridiculous. It becomes like a mindless James Bond thriller but with a miscast Tom Hanks in the lead action role instead of someone exciting like a Sean Connery type. It’s based on the best seller novel by Dan Brown and written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman. It tells of the death of a progressive Pope and of the Conclave, which begins the process of choosing a new pontiff by the College of Cardinals for the world’s billion Catholics. Before we can adjust our eyes to all the red cassocks parading around the Vatican, a scientist is murdered and his experimental jar of anti-matter has been swiped from the CERN lab in Switzerland and planted at an unknown holy site in Rome. It’s a powerful device that is threatened to be used as a bomb to blowup the Vatican. The scientist’s Italian physicist partner, Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, Israeli actress), is immediately brought to the Vatican along with American symbolist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), whose expertise is needed to explain the cryptic messages left behind by a group calling themselves the ‘Illuminati’ (Enlightened ones, who formed a secret society within the Catholic Church). They were secular free-thinking scientists who went underground some 400-hundred years ago after the Vatican tried to eliminate them for their radical beliefs. They are now threatening to brand and kill four cardinals in public places in Rome as a way of bringing down the Catholic Church for past wrongs against the men of learning and its continued stance against science. Please note that this is all a fiction created by Dan Brown, as the real Illuminati were created in 1776 in Bavaria and had nothing to do with the church. In 1784 they were banned by the Bavarian government, as were all socret societies. The group did not exist after they were banned.

There’s a race against the clock to save the lives of the four preferiti cardinals (those favored to win the election) from a psychopath paid assassin (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) working for the Illuminati and there’s still enough time for the know-it-all globetrotting smarty-pants Harvard prof Langdon to spout points in favor of science and for various church officials to equally spout points for the Catholic religion. The church spokesmen include the cunningly Old School elderly Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), presiding over the papal elections; the aggressive youthful Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor)-the secretary of the late pontiff who by tradition becomes the acting head of Vatican City until a new pope is chosen; and the stern Commander of the Swiss Guard, the Vatican security force, Richter (Stellan Skarsgard). It also seems every few minutes, in this chatty film, someone has to explain the plot. The film in all its bluster to keep the pot boiling with a mixture of false clues and telling coincidences, gives us a touristy guided tour through the catacombs, the naves, the underground passages of St Peter’s and the Sistine Chapel, and of various churches in Rome with long and rich histories. But it all turns out to be so much hokum like the familiar James Bond thriller plotline of a super-villain trying to destroy the world (in this case it’s only Rome). Its crime story uses as background the dark mysteries of the Catholic Church and provides Cliffs Notes like info on the likes of Raphael, Bernini and Galileo. But it never becomes a thinking man’s pic, as it leaves us with a superficial suspense story that wasn’t too thrilling or suspenseful or enlightening.

Nobody should be offended by “Angels & Demons” for a supposed anti-Catholic message unless they’re humorless, as its tepid aim seems to be to try to bridge the gap between science and religion by pointing out positives and negatives from both sides. The film’s faults revolve not around anything heretical but because it’s merely a mediocre potboiler, too lacking in grace, and overlong—in other words, a typical Ron Howard film. Its best points are that it flies by with celestial speed and is unintentionally funny in all its awkward historical and religious expositions.