Angels and Demons
Well, at least Tom Hanks got a haircut. The superstar actor sported long, greasy locks in The Da Vinci Code and his awkward hairdo was one of the most critically maligned aspects of that dreadful movie. Now, three years after that atrocity, Hanks reprises the role of brilliant symbologist Robert Langdon in Angels and Demons and sadly, unsurprisingly, little has changed beyond Hanks' haircut. It seems there are far more hefty problems at work here than those that can be solved by the simple shearing of hair.
The usual suspects are back in this second Langdon adventure based on a bestselling Dan Brown novel. Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman (who won an Oscar for his work on A Beautiful Mind, but will be remembered by Batman fans as the man who helped temporarily sink the franchise with his Batman & Robin script) receives some aid from Hollywood mainstay David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man) and the result is another stuffy lecture with punctuations of premeditated plot. Goldsman and Koepp are able to add a few dashes of humour woefully missing from Goldsman's script for The Da Vinci Code, but they cannot prevent the story from growing clumsy and repetitive.
Cinematographer Salvatore Totino (whose work in The Da Vinci Code offered up the visual equivalent of burnt toast) once again paints Robert Langdon's world in muddy colours and flat lighting. Totino seems bored with his job and every image has a workmanlike quality to it. Even composer Hans Zimmer (whose recent collaboration with James Newton Howard on The Dark Knight provided one of the best musical scores of 2008) seems to be recycling his past orchestrations in hopes of getting out of work early. His score for Angels and Demons occasionally throbs with urgency, but the music is delivered without a consistent theme or attitude and quickly fades from memory.
Also returning to right the wrongs committed in The Da Vinci Code disaster is director Ron Howard, who seems to be on some sort of demented mission to prove he's lost whatever talent he once had. As someone who greatly disliked his recent Oscar bait picture Frost/Nixon, I am struggling to remember the last time Howard made a really good movie. Back in 2001, he made A Beautiful Mind and that movie benefited from an explosive performance by Russell Crowe and the crucial narrative twist in Goldsman's script. Even further back, in 1995, Howard knocked Apollo 13 out of the park and made one of the best movies of that year. But however you look at it, that was either eight or fourteen years ago, so Howard has been slumming it for quite a while.
The most frustrating thing about The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons is that they could work as crackling, energetic mystery thrillers in the hands of a more competent filmmaker. Brown's prose leaves a lot to be desired, but the one thing that makes his books worth reading (and that has propelled them to the tops of bestseller charts) is that they possess an incredible sense of fun. The problem with Howard is that, not only does he direct as though he's never seen a thriller movie before (except his own, perhaps), but he sacrifices that crucial element of fun in favour of whiz-bang effects and stifling boredom.
At the very least, it's good to have Hanks here to liven things up. Perhaps feeling less weighted by the cutting of his hair (or feeling that maybe he should earn his paycheque this second time around), Hanks brings a smile and a refreshingly comic attitude to the role of history-loving professor Robert Langdon. He has that lovable twinkle in his eye that was completely absent from his performance in The Da Vinci Code. For this reason, Hanks is arguably the one person in this movie trying to improve the onscreen material and provide the movie with the necessary amount of fun. Unfortunately, he's on his own here, stranded by a director on a kamikaze mission and a pair of screenwriters laughing all the way to the bank.
This particular Langdon adventure has a zippier pace than the sluggish meanderings at work in The Da Vinci Code, but it still rarely manages to reach an acceptable level of excitement. The plot sends Langdon and his sidekick Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer, stuck playing the obligatory smart female character with little to say or do) racing through the streets of Rome on a hunt to save four kidnapped Cardinals, each of whom are hidden somewhere that represents one of the four elements. The situation is made worse by the presence of a canister containing a big glowing ball of anti-matter that threatens to blow up Vatican City (and a good chunk of Rome) if the heroes fail to locate the canister by midnight.
The plot directly involves the ancient debate of science versus religion, but Howard, Goldsman, and Koepp spend all of their time avoiding controversy and attempting to appease believers on either side of the debate. They fail to bring anything new to one argument or the other and so the inclusion of the debate feels completely pointless, much like everything else in the movie. In the end, it all comes back to Hanks' new look. Angels and Demons is really just The Da Vinci Code with better hair. With Howard at the helm, the movie never finds its narrative footing and clumsily stumbles from start to finish. I can no longer feign respect or excitement for Howard's directorial work. He is a filmmaker going through the motions, a storyteller without a voice, and a depressing reminder that sometimes a hundred and fifty million dollars buys little more than a decent haircut.