Nothing succeeds like excess, no question. Translated to movies: Bigger violence, mightier superheroes, escalating hype. If the box office roars, the basic material will be sequeled, prequeled, reimagined until the legs fall off.
“The Da Vinci Code” hit all the marks in 2006: An international cast, well known locales and a wildly controversial premise to inflame a global audience. The Catholic Church condemned the production, partisans -for and against- lined up long before the book-to-movie reached the screen. Even now, the background noise obscures the relative merits of the film. All that buzz was an answered prayer for the film makers: “The Da Vinci Code” earned upwards of $750 million and author Dan Brown found an audience even larger than his popular book did.
Now, the production team is back: Director Ron Howard, screenwriters Akiva Goldsman, David Koepp and Columbia Pictures mining gold from an earlier Dan Brown novel now presented as a sequel: “Angels & Demons.”
This sets up an irresistible Smackdown! but let’s understand a few ground rules: These films are works of dramatic fiction, not documentary in nature. As such I view neither one as an attack on the Catholic Church or the nature of Jesus. As a lifelong observant Catholic I rest easy knowing my faith is not assailed by historical misstatements and preposterous notions offered as plot devices in these movies. I live with the reality, positive and accepting of human frailty, reinforced over a lifetime. Hey, even the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano describes “Angels & Demons” as harmless entertainment.
As a basis for judgment, that works for me.
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Harvard professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is swimming laps when approached by a representative from the Vatican. Big problems back in Rome: A cryptic message and a threat that Langdon connects to the long vanished Illuminati brotherhood, now bent on retribution as cardinals gather to elect a new pope. In Geneva, someone has stolen a container of stored “antimatter” from a high-speed physics laboratory. Those positive and negative protons and electrons are catastrophically unstable. The threat escalates and so does the body count as Langdon and scientist Vittoria Vetra (Eyelet Zurer) race to foil a plot aimed at destroying church hierarchy and Vatican City itself. People are not who they seem. These are the demons and angels in this briskly paced drama about the clash between science and faith.
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The Defending Champion
A different clash animates “The Da Vinci Code.” Professor Langdon is summoned by police following a lecture on symbols and the sacred feminine. Someone has murdered a man in the Louvre museum. In his own blood, the victim leaves clues pointing to a much larger mystery. Aided by French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) Langdon sorts out a a deadly struggle between a pair of secret societies, Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion. The “secret” they seek to destroy / protect reaches to the very heart of Catholic theology and church history [This element is central to the drama and denounced as blasphemy by many Catholics]. Solving the underlying mystery involves historian Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a bishop with an agenda (Alfred Molina), plus a murderous albino (Paul Bettany) in a trot through the countryside of France, England and Scotland. Eventually, Langdon kneels at the tomb of Mary Magdelene under a canopy of stars.
Both films serve up clues in much the same way those police procedural shows unpeel that onion on TV: One piece exposing another and another. This imposes a certain predictability to the storytelling structure, if not the outcome.
That convention doesn’t help “The Da Vinci Code” very much, although it tries very hard. The story plunges into arcane church history, obscure alliances, shady characters and wide ranging speculation. This movie desperately needed to ratchet back the mystery because it hampered the storytelling pace. Director Howard handles this gamely, even creatively, but his bench lets him down. Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou have their moments, but too often they are wooden together. So is the dialog. In spots the lifeless speechifying makes Hanks, a two time Academy Award winner, sound like he’s in “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”
Winning performances by McKellen, Bettany and Jean Reno as an obsessed police captain raise the interest level. So does the buzz surrounding “The Da Vinci Code” outside the theater.
By contrast, the release of “Angels & Demons” generates much less heat off-screen. This time, the movie makers understand that less can be more. They’ve trimmed and streamlined the story to give us a clearer view of the field and the players. Ewan McGregor is very effective as the Papal chamberlain Patrick McKenna. Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss and Stellan Skarsgard from the Swiss Guard add texture and real dimension to this highly charged murder mystery.
Tom Hanks returns to reliable form and this time and has more chemistry with his female lead, Ayelet Zurer. The real miracle here lies in the film maker’s art. The Vatican allowed no filming on Church property. Those crowds in St. Peter’s Square are back lot creations, those ornate interiors are movie sets in California. Digital enhancements flesh out the images, seamlessly.
Both films look beautiful; “Angels & Demons” needed more work to get there. Both are definitely related but can exist as stand-alone movies and offer enough clear difference to choose a winner.
The films are very well made. They portray the Catholic Church as an institution flawed by human frailty and recognized here as a dramatic device only. Beyond those acknowledgments these are “chase” movies and it’s clear “Angels & Demons” is the stronger film.
“The Da Vinci Code” is undone by the film maker’s decision to film a book, not film a movie. Structure that sustains a book can turn a film into a bowl of spaghetti, and it shows here. The murder mystery is smothered and the internal chase slows to a crawl. Fine actors are barely adequate here because the material prompts more talking, less movie.
The sequel avoids “Da Vinci’s” structural overload, allowing the story, the actors and the action to move ahead. Ron Howard and the writers have reworked the material to reflect their strengths.
You’ll enjoy “Angels & Demons” as the more satisfying film.
“The Da Vinci Code” offers flawed entertainment plus an implicit message to anyone seeking religious guidance: Consult your priest or rabbi or imam or inner light, not your movie listings. That works for me, too.