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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
Yarn Earns Respect, Not Adoration or Scorn
by John P. McCarthy

Moviegoers approaching Angels & Demons with trepidation or reluctance after The Da Vinci Code will find themselves swept along in the hands of the same filmmaker working with noticeably better source material. Ron Howard manages to banish most of the theological and cinematic hobgoblins that plagued Da Vinci Code (without stopping it from becoming a blockbuster). The result is a luridly compelling yarn that, for the purposes of the multiplex if not the pulpit or the laboratory, effectively bridges belief and reason.

Based on the novel Dan Brown wrote prior to that popular book, Angels & Demons is an edge-of-your-pew, beat-the-clock thriller set in a resplendent Rome. There's enough sinister ecclesiastical intrigue and reassuring ecumenical piety to engage both the fallen and the faithful. If you feel the need to parse it for veracity regarding matters secular or religious, it means the storytelling spell hasn't taken.

Compared to the mechanical Code, there's less need for momentum-killing exposition. It's not overflowing with literary grace. Screenwriter's Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp can't avoid their share of lines like "Itís a pentagram!" But the plot is considerably more compact and localized. More importantly perhaps, Rome has never looked so good and the stateside recreations of the Vatican (where they were not permitted to shoot) are superb.

Rather than antagonize the Catholic Church, Harvard symbolist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) comes to its aid when, following the Pope's death, an ancient brotherhood called the Illuminati kidnaps four cardinals and threatens to blow Vatican City to smithereens. According to Brown, the Illuminati are a cadre of super-smart believers who have been persecuted over the centuries for criticizing the Church's alleged hostility toward science. If the conclave to elect a new pontiff isn't halted, they threaten to kill one of the clerics every hour and then set off a miniaturized big bang that will decimate the Holy See. Can Langdon and comely Italian scientist Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) decipher the clues in time? It's worth finding out.  

The movie begins with the smashing of the late Pope's ring and seal by his secretary Fr. Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), who, as Carmerlengo, calls the shots at the Vatican until the sequestered College of Cardinals chooses a successor. Then, a canister of "anti-matter" is stolen from the CERN laboratory in Switzerland where Vetra works. After she and Langdon are brought in, they comb through the Vatican archives and race around the Eternal City tracing a path anchored by four symbols standing for earth, air, fire and water. Rescuing the cardinals is a tall order. Fiendish, grisly acts of violence, including branding, immolation and significant gunplay, are perpetrated. Power struggles and turf wars inside the Vatican result in red herrings and twists that stoke the tick-tock tension.

The possibility that devout Catholics (other Christian denominations are pretty much off the hook) will be offended by the liberties Brown has taken with regard to Church history and by how members of the hierarchy are depicted is tempered by the movie's superb production values. The lighting, cinematography, and costumes would make the most decadent and materialistic Pope in history green with envy. (The major exception is Hans Zimmer's predictably, redundantly celestial music.) In fact, if Angels & Demons commits any sin it's idolatry not blasphemy. Showcasing the glory of Rome and Vatican City -- and the trappings of Catholicism -- the way the picutre does almost qualifies as propaganda for the faith. Moreover, the Church is the victim. Preserving its treasures and architectural history, not to mention thousands of human lives, is the object of the exercise.

Howard casts formidable European actors in pivotal roles. Alongside McGregor and a cadre of Italian performers, Stellan Skarsgaard plays the head of the Swiss Guard, Armin Mueller-Stahl portrays a key cardinal, and Dane Nikolaj Lie Kaas acts as the hand of death. Israeli actress Zurer is lovely and low-key, while Mr. Hanks is meticulous about doing nothing that would enhance or undermine the story. His weird hairdo from The Da Vinci Code has even been tamed. 

Angels & Demons has virtually nothing of substance to say about religion or science, or the relationship between the two. It does teach a lesson that entertaining and accessible works of fiction -- potboilers, if you will -- are best able to convey: namely, don't believe everything you see or hear. Human beings are infinitely creative, drawn both to the light and the dark, so trust but veryify. And while we may need good scientists and priests, we certainly need decent storytellers. 

(Released by Columbia Pictures and rated "PG-13" for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material.)

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