I liked "The DaVinci Code" more. And I didn't like "The DaVinci Code" that much.
Written before "DaVinci", "Angels and Demons", author Dan Brown's first adventure featuring Symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) is now a sequel telling the adventures of Langdon after his last tangle with the Catholic Church and the Vatican. This is a no brainer; both the book and the movie were phenomenal successes and a sequel was inevitable.
But like many sequels, "Angels" doesn't spend a lot of time creating characters. The filmmakers assume we know (or remember) everything we need to know about Langdon. And all of the new characters are given a few words of development, perhaps a quick throwaway phrase to try to make them human. But this doesn't work. The Catholic Church is a complex religion filled with many rules, orders and traditions with many people performing various functions. We need to know what part these people play in this hierarchy in order to understand why they are doing what they are doing. So little time is spent developing these characters, we have to guess about their motivations.
I watched an interview with director Ron Howard and he indicated that they were going to make this one much, much better than "DaVinci". Everything would be faster paced in an effort to keep the viewer on his feet. Faster paced than "DaVinci"? How is that even possible? Well, after the briefest of set-ups, Langdon is flown to Vatican City (on a Vatican jet) shortly after the Pope has died. The Vatican is willing to let bygones be bygones as long as he helps them with a little bit of a situation. The Illuminati, a secret society of Catholics run underground by the Vatican centuries ago may be back for their revenge. This society feels that science and God can co-exist. Not only are they out for revenge; they appear to be out for blood. But the Cameralinga (Ewan McGregor) receives a threat that the Illuminati will kill the top four candidates to replace the Pope and explode enough anti-matter in the Vatican to take out part of Rome as well. They call in Langdon who immediately sets to work. An Italian scientist, Vittoria Vettra (Ayelet Zurer, "Vantage Point", "Munich") the woman in charge of the anti-matter experiments, is called in to help contain the substance should it become unstable. Langdon and Vittoria start to run from one church to the next, looking for various statues in an attempt to stop the murders of the cardinals. During this race, they must contend with a contentious head of the Swiss Guard, Captain Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) and Cardinal Strauss (Armin Muhler-Stahl) who insists the Cardinals go ahead with their meeting to elect a new Pontiff.
So "Angels & Demons" quickly becomes a long chase, with Langdon and Vittoria barely arriving at a new location in the puzzle to watch a Cardinal die. In "DaVinci", there seemed to be an actual puzzle. In "Angels", after they find the beginning of the trail, they ultimately start looking for statues pointing in a specific direction, to lead them to the next location. No puzzle. Just chase. Along the way, there are moments when various church officials seem to be playing politics. And I guess it is all supposed to mean something. Considering how little emphasis is placed on any of this, I don't think Ron Howard or his writers Akiva Goldsman or David Koepp really care about what it all means.
But the lack of character development ultimately results in a fast-paced but boring exercise in filmmaking. Why should we care about anything Langdon and Vittoria are doing? We learn virtually nothing about Vittoria except that she is a scientist willing to go to great lengths for what she believes in. Why does she care what happens at the Vatican? She's Italian. Does that automatically make her care about the Vatican? Langdon seems to pick up pretty much where he left off, except this time he has no personal connection to anyone involved in the story. The character that fares the best is the Cameralinga. McGregor is given adequate time and material to make us interested in his character. He talks about his background, about how the last Pope found him and adopted him and set him on his path in the church. Too bad all of that is thrown away with a completely preposterous ending.
Frankly, this is easily one of Tom Hanks' worst films. Hanks is a very good actor, able to convey a lot of emotion and genuine character. He is also very funny. When he has none of this to work with, he appears to be an ill-suited action hero.
And these two films are also some of the worst in Ron Howard's career. Howard's best films really get to the depth of a character, explore their problems or triumphs. Interestingly, it seems like Howard's attempts to create super commercial films always results in his worst work. "The Grinch" was a terrible film and "DaVinci" and "Angels" are not much better. But all three will probably rank as the top moneymakers in his career. I think Howard is ultimately more interested in telling more human stories, and invests more into them, working to extract the best performances from his characters. But he is part of a large movie company and either feels the need or is pressured to make more commercial films. When these cross his desk, he probably agrees but I suspect it is probably more work for him. And the result shows. Filmmakers who are passionate about the film they are making always make better films. The films may not be classics, but when you care about the project, you naturally invest more of yourself, more of your time and thought into making it more interesting. Howard doesn't seem to be passionate about these Dan Brown films.
Dan Brown is set to publish a third Robert Langdon film, so I have to assume that there will also be a third film starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. If there is such a film, it will be evidence that these projects are being done to generate money and not because of any religious calling.