Angels & Demons review

Tom Hanks returns with a better haircut in this sequel to The Da Vinci Code. But is he really the star of the show this time…?

First things first: Tom Hanks has a better hairstyle here than he sported in The Da Vinci Code. Phew. Over and done, now we can talk about the movie…

Angels & Demons is a spectacular race-against-time thriller. For those who are not familiar with the book, I’ll sum it up briefly: Cern research lab in Switzerland has managed to create a small but significant amount of antimatter (yes, I know…). The canister that contains it is stolen and it reappears on security monitors in the Vatican, as it has been hidden underneath it threatening to blow the whole Vatican City up in a matter of hours.

An ancient Vatican arch-enemy, the ‘Illuminati’, is awakened from the past and is blamed for the threat, hence the summoning of symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) to the scene. Meanwhile, the current pope has died and the conclave is on to elect the new one; the four preferred candidates – or ‘favoriti’ – are kidnapped and killed, one per-hour, in the run-up to midnight, all in arcane and mystical ways that require deciphering in order to hopefully be prevented.

And then there’s the midnight deadline when the antimatter might go off…

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I sympathise with the movie makers: there is a hell of a lot of plot to chomp through, and you cannot possibly include every single nuance while keeping the pace tight. Apart from a couple of early scenes, the movie is set entirely in the city of Rome, which has rarely looked so stunning. This is all the more impressive when you learn that key set-pieces (St. Peter’s Square, Piazza Navona, Castle St Angelo), have been rebuilt in California, even though most of the movie was actually shot in Rome.

The mind boggles at the complexity of the logistics for this production. Being Italian, I am also painfully aware of the labyrinthine Italian bureaucracy, so organizing the location shoot on the streets of Rome would have been an incredible feat. Luckily, it paid off and it looks amazing.

Indeed, it almost feels as if the city of Rome is the real star of the movie, more so than top-biller Tom Hanks. Hanks has a lot to do in a short time, as do all the cast, and it really feels as if most of the characters and the relationships they develop are, well…underdeveloped. Of course most of us know the Robert Langdon character from the Dan Brown books as well as the previous adaptation of The Da Vinci Code, but for those who were to come to Angels & Demons without having seen or read anything prior to the movie, the main character of Langdon would appear to be sketchy to say the least, despite being appealing and knowledgeable. The character-development leaves the viewer wanting to know more.

The relationship between Langdon and scientist Vittoria Vetra is particularly disappointing. She feels marginal to the plot, relegated to supporting-character rather than sidekick. While it is nice to see a female character who is intelligent and erudite while at the same time not overly sexualised for the benefit of the movie audience, it is a shame so much of the baggage and depth of her character is missing from the source novel. The ‘baddie’, the executor of all the nefarious acts in the movie, a sort of counterpart to Silas from the first movie, is also equally one-dimensional.

As a thriller, there is so much going on that the viewer rarely gets a break, which is paradoxically counterproductive in terms of suspense. I found myself thinking that the plot would have benefited from the narrative structure of a show like ‘24′, with its incumbent deadlines; but of course, this is a movie and as such it has a much tighter remit.

Tom Hanks is likeable and enjoyable and does his usual good job, but you are left wanting more of him and of his character; Ewan McGregor is perfect on paper as the ‘camerlengo’, the PA to the dead pope, a highly sympathetic and progressive figure (although the character was originally a Sicilian, with ‘Carlo Ventresca’ becoming ‘Patrick McKenna’).

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The rest of the supporting cast are great and do a good job in setting a truly international scene. Any movie with Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgård and Hanks is going to be an enjoyable yarn.

Director Ron Howard ensures a tight pace and as good an adaptation as was possible given the wealth of material at hand. Purists of the book will find lots to object to (Angel And Demons is even treated as a sequel to The Da Vinci Code – as we know, it is actually a prequel), but this should not take away from the film’s achievements, its technical brilliance, and what it’ll doubtlessly do for the Roman tourist industry!

Angels & Demons opens in the UK on Thursday


3 out of 5