Here’s what’s wrong with Robert Langdon, the symbologist protagonist of Dan Brown’s books and Ron Howard’s film adaptations The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons: Early in the film version of Angels, he’s called upon to unravel a murderous plot by the Illuminati, a centuries-old secret society. Flown to the Vatican and whisked into the Catholic Church’s desperate confidences because he’s the only man on Earth erudite enough to solve the mystery, he can’t help delivering a smug impromptu lecture on the historical censorship of marble statues as he passes through a hallway lined with them. No one asked for the information, his hosts are embarrassed by how those events reflect on the Church, and Langdon comes across as a self-righteous showoff, but what does he care? He’s the kind of action hero who barks preemptory orders at cops and cardinals alike, and who keeps winding up improbably alone and at center stage whenever combat breaks out, but he’s also a stuffy, arrogant professor-type; in short, he’s an ass. Tom Hanks’ uncharismatic, impatient portrayal doesn’t help, but there aren’t many other places to go with the material he’s given.
The same inherent problem of form limits Angels & Demons. Howard recast the story as a Da Vinci Code sequel rather than prequel to justify a more confident, driven Langdon, and he dispenses with some of the first film’s leaden portentousness, and all its intolerably silly whirling CGI portrayals of Langdon’s thoughts. But the plot itself hamstrings his streamlining attempts: The pope has just died, and Vatican City is crammed with onlookers awaiting a papal election. But the four preferred papal candidates have been kidnapped by a conspirator who plans to execute them at one-hour intervals at secret sites determined by an Illuminati induction ritual. Hanks has only four manic, incident-packed hours to find each site in turn—it seems to take much longer in real time—before all four cardinals will be dead and the kidnapper will use stolen antimatter to blow Vatican City back to heaven.
Anyone who saw The Da Vinci Code or the National Treasure movies knows how this goes: A problem is presented, a bunch of factoids are dumped on the table, the hero leaps to an improbable conclusion as if solving the Riddler’s clues in the ’60s camp Batman TV series, repeat. But the story requires this to be done so often, at such length, and via such eye-rolling leaps of logic that all Howard’s efforts at crafting a propulsive thriller come to nothing. And the film’s biggest assets—Allan Cameron’s sumptuous production design, Salvatore Totino’s cinematography, and Rome’s staggering beauty—eventually become as oppressive and exhausting as Hans Zimmer’s insistent score, or the script’s seemingly endless speeches about the conflict between science and religion. At half the length, and with half of Hanks’ sneering pretension, this would make a pretty terrific action film. Anyone up for just plain Demons?