Here's the good news: Angels & Demons is better than The Da Vinci Code. Here's the bad news: After I take a shit, if I fish one of my turds out of the toilet, smear it across a blank reel of film, and project it onto a screen, that movie is also better than The Da Vinci Code.
Okay, to be a little more constructive, the sequel has more visually interesting Roman settings, tighter suspense and higher stakes, a fine supporting performance by Ewan McGregor (absurdity of the material taken into account), and no scene where Tom Hanks has a stunning realization that Audrey Tautou is the great-granddaughter of Jesus Christ, causing me to shoot Dr. Pepper out of my nose as I roar with disbelieving laughter.
The plot involves four candidates for the vacant Papacy being kidnapped and the Vatican threatened with an antimatter bomb that will destroy the entire city. Of course, all the clues are buried in ancient artwork and texts and architecture, so only Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon can crack the case. Langdon is still a smug ass, but at least he got a haircut. In one scene he harshly criticizes members of the Catholic Church for their history of censorship, and while I'm no fan of the Catholics, I couldn't help but laugh at the ironic absurdity of an American lashing out at the Church for things that happened hundreds of years ago, as if the United States' history is squeaky-clean just as far back.
Here's why the mysteries in the Robert Langdon series (and for that matter the National Treasure movies) don't work: They rely entirely on the esoteric knowledge of the protagonist and are literally indecipherable for any viewer. If you look at the great cinematic mysteries - Chinatown, Memento, The Third Man, L.A. Confidential, etc. - the viewer may not figure out the solution before the hero, but as we watch the clues being uncovered it all builds to something. We see the puzzle being put together. In The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons we're just fed Trivial Pursuit factoids about ancient European culture, watch Tom Hanks look confused for six seconds, and then he correctly tells us the answer to the inscrutable riddle. What fun.
Shitty mysteries aside, the movie actually does have a mildly amusing first hundred minutes or so. Stripped to its core it's a chase movie with a whole lot of high-speed pursuit across Vatican City, exotic deaths, passable action scenes, and the very blunt threat of an explosion killing everyone. When what I thought was the big twist came, followed by climax and denouement, I was willing to give the film a quasi-positive review.
Then the movie starts up again and has yet another twist revealing that another character was the villain all along, throwing the entire movie before it askew with a dozen plot holes and causing me to damn near slap my forehead in disbelief and frustration. Why? The music could have faded up and the credits rolled before the tacked-on final twenty minutes and it would have been fine, but no, they couldn't leave well enough alone. Anyone who thought the ending to Return of the King was stretched needs to watch this movie to see how good we had it circa 2003. Jesus Christ, no pun intended.
There was one thing I appreciated about the film. Near the beginning we learn that Robert Langdon is an atheist. In most movies where the protagonist is an atheist, such as The Count of Monte Cristo or Signs, it's depicted as a character flaw that the hero triumphantly overcomes at the end of the film. Now I know no one gives a shit about my religious beliefs and that's why I never talk about them, but I find this trend insulting and condescending and I was dreading Langdon's inevitable conversion to the Lord, which... never happens! In fact, it's specifically stated at the end that his experiences did not alter his worldview. So, if nothing else, that was a nice surprise. I just wish it could have happened in a better film.
2 Stars out of 5