Film Review: Angels & Demons

Dynamite ticking-bomb-thriller follow-up to the smash 'Da Vinci Code,' about a cataclysmic device set to destroy the Vatican, will most certainly have explosive results at the box office.

Getting things right a second time isn’t exactly a Hollywood habit, but Angels & Demons, providing yet another intriguing, historically based conspiracy that targets elements in the Catholic Church, should prove that miracles of a secular kind can happen again. The film is a mesmerizing pile-up of symbols, twists, Catholic ritual, Vatican denizens and secret crypts and chambers.

The story, from Dan Brown’s best-selling novel, again follows the sleuthing of celebrated Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks again), who cracked the case in The Da Vinci Code but didn’t make a whole lot of friends at the Vatican. Here he is assisted by nuclear scientist Victoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) in a race through Vatican and ancient Roman churches, archives and chambers to decipher symbols on floors, statues, obelisks, bodies, etc. that may lead to the conspirators.

The intrigue begins at a time when the College of Cardinals must elect a new Pope and is in crisis because the four Cardinal frontrunners in the Papal race, known as the Preferiti, have been kidnapped amidst a catastrophic bomb threat. In great secrecy because the media must be kept in the dark, Vatican Inspector Ernesto Olivetti (Pierfrancesco Favino) of the Gendarmerie, going against much negative Vatican sentiment regarding Langdon, shows up at the professor’s Harvard pool, hoping to recruit him to solve the case.

As symbols are important to the case and as Langdon has been trying without luck to gain access to the Vatican archives for his latest project, he takes the assignment. In Rome and working with CERN scientist Dr. Vetra, he links the theft of a lethal canister of anti-matter from Switzerland’s famed particle-physics lab with the case and determines that the Illuminati, a centuries-old pro-science, anti-Church underground group, is behind the conspiracy.

The chore is to follow a 400-year-old Path of Illumination through Rome to find the Cardinals and the cylinder, whose battery must not run out. Using resources like the highly guarded Vatican archives, Langdon and Vetra make their way through the sanctuaries that provide additional clues but also, tragically, the branded bodies of already murdered Cardinals.

Langdon is helped, hindered and fooled by a variety of Vatican higher-ups. On the secular side, besides the Vatican’s Gendarmerie police, is the Swiss Guard, in charge of protecting the Pope and Cardinals. Their leader, Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgård), remembering Langdon’s work on the Da Vinci Code, is perhaps the most resentful of the interloper. The Church is most prominently represented by the Irish-born Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the loyal, soft-spoken secretary to the just-deceased Pope and the interim leader of the Church until the Pope’s successor can be elected.

There’s also the deceptively understated Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), who sometimes betrays his eagerness to be the next Pope. Lurking in the shadows and emerging intermittently to do the Illuminati dirty work is bespectacled hit man Mr. Gray (Nikolaj Lie Kaas).

As with all ticking-bomb films, the doomsday device here is uncovered, but so are some nifty twists. There’s also de rigueur violence and some stunning action scenes, most notably those involving advanced colliding particle experiments at CERN and a helicopter escapade that stuns.

Moving fast, furiously and gloriously through sweeping, eye-popping Rome locations (most ingeniously re-created in L.A.), Angels & Demons derives its strength from many areas. The variety of camera angles and sweeping Steadicam and dolly shots are a feast for the eyes, as is the production design that delivers brilliant stand-ins, including those for the vaulted interiors and vast exterior Vatican spaces like St. Peter’s Square and the Sistine Chapel.

The script and editing keep the story humming and Hanks and the other onscreen talent, under Ron Howard’s savvy direction, keep things interesting and credible. Brown too deserves credit as he, like the late writer Michael Crichton, has great respect for research and history, adding heft to the basic story. And for the message-oriented, there’s a nice reminder that both science and faith can co-exist in our lives.

The Catholic Church, whose disapproval was feared, reportedly deemed Angels & Demons “harmless.” Laymen who worship good movies may deem the film a promising bet for 2010 Oscar pools, especially in the categories of screenplay adaptation, cinematography, special effects, production design, costumes and music.