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Angels & Demons: Hell's haircut
The Da Vinci Code sequel's problems start with the coif
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Angels & Demons' only thrills are empty ones.
Angels & Demons' only thrills are empty ones.

When last we saw symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), in 2006's The Da Vinci Code, he had outwitted Opus Dei and uncovered Mary Magdalene's mortal remains, both under the handicap of a modified bob. Langdon returns in Angels & Demons, another Catholic church conspiracy piece from bestseller Dan Brown, as do many of the same calling cards of the first: oogly-boogly men in vestments, foreign-speaking lady sidekicks, and elaborate puzzles teased in dead languages.

What doesn't carry over? Hanks' haircut from the first, and that omission - work with me here - says a lot, none of it promising, about A&D's diminishing returns. The unholy union of Anna Wintour and Timothy Hutton, Hanks' Da Vinci locks seemed to shape-shift at different angles from bowl cut to mullet to Prince Valiant. It was comically bad, a giggling affront to good taste, not unlike the film at large: so ludicrous and overpuffed as to be, well, kinda fun.

But Angels & Demons will have none of that. Okay, a little of that: When we are first reunited with Langdon, he's snugged into a sporty little Speedo, but that may very well be the first and only crack in the filmmakers' obsessively straight face. (I, on the other hand, had a hard time not snickering at composer Hans Zimmer's opening salvo: Nothing intimates doom like the Carl Orff-like combo platter of timpani and a men's chorus.)

This time around, the Church itself calls in the agitator Langdon for help when the Preferiti - the four favorites to replace the newly dead pope - are kidnapped. All signs point to the Illuminati; to prove science's superiority over religion, the secret sect intends to kill one cardinal an hour and then - the big finish - demolish Vatican City with a stolen canister of antimatter (the so-called God Particle), which will set off a Hiroshima-like house-cleaning at the stroke of midnight (when, um, the canister's battery runs out).

Langdon attempts to decode various clues leading to the captive cardinals before the clock runs out; the bulk of Angels & Demons takes place in chase mode. Two sequences stand out as suspenseful and smartly rendered - we know what's at stake (death by suffocation or drowning), and we know what needs to be done (a breath of fresh air, in both cases) - but something's surely amiss, especially in a production of this scale, with this kind of talent at the helm, when these are exceptional instances and not the norm.

Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman don't require the audience to use its own little gray cells in unraveling the plot, which mostly consists of Hanks pointing at an ancient text or crumbling cathedral and muttering something explanatory. So the only thrill here comes from the adrenaline kick of the chase. Alas, it's an empty, Pavlovian kick at best.

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