Wednesday, February 27, 2013


“What a relief, the symbologist is here.”

Thus sneers a haughty Vatican bigshot when he beholds Tom Hanks as the professor hero in Angels & Demons. This was by no means the only time that the film made me laugh out loud, but I think it may have been the only time it did so intentionally.

A sequel to 2006’s The Da Vinci Code, and directed, like that film, by Ron Howard, the movie was a much better time than I expected. The Pope officially steps down tomorrow; if you’d like to mark the occasion with a tale of wild Vatican intrigue, this could be your choice.

Da Vinci Code was well-made but silly and a little slow; Angels & Demons is no less silly but is furiously fast-moving and sometimes surprisingly gruesome. It involves the Catholic Church and the Illuminati and the kidnapping of four Cardinals and a plot to blow up the Vatican right in the middle of a Conclave, using a fragment of anti-matter purloined from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland as the explosive.

Hanks’ symbologist rides to the rescue at the request of the Vatican cops, and follows a string of clues conveniently planted around Rome in Bernini’s sculptures. Hanks takes a deep breath at the beginning and pounds through his movie-star duties here with an award-worthy straight face, belting out exposition on the fly.

Aiding him is a gorgeous CERN physicist, played by Ayelet Zurer, who shows a solid grasp of such other disciplines as pathology and Renaissance art whenever the plot requires—she’s a bit like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island. I liked her a lot. Rounding out the cast are Ewan McGregor, as a fresh-faced young priest, Armin Mueller-Stahl as a cold-fish old cardinal, Stellan Skarsgaard as the chief of the Swiss Guard and the very cool-looking Pierfrancesco Favino as the Vatican police inspector.

Crazy and headlong throughout, Angels & Demons chucks any pretence of credibility in its last twenty minutes or so, climaxing in a chaos of helicopter ascensions and explosions and immolations. It’s quite absurd, but Howard kept me happily entertained throughout.

Like Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons is an adaptation, of course, of a best-selling novel by Dan Brown. How faithful it is, I can’t say, because I was completely satisfied, and felt no need to press on, after reading Brown’s stunning first sentence: “Physicist Leonardo Vetra smelled burning flesh, and knew it was his own.

Really? He was a physicist? How interesting. I wonder what made him decide to choose physics as a career? I wonder how the lifelong study of the laws of the physical universe molded his outlook on life? Also, why was his flesh burning?

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