Tom Hanks-sans his greasy Da Vinci mullet-is back as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, summoned by Vatican officials to help deal with a potential crisis. Though the book was written before Da Vinci, a few knowing references here make it clear that the events in the movie post-date Da Vinci, and therefore the Church understands that Langdon knows his stuff. In the wake of the death of the Pope, the four cardinals who are the primary candidates to replace him have been kidnapped. Evidence suggests the involvement of the Illuminati-the ancient society of scholars and artists whose pro-science views antagonized the Renaissance-era Catholic Church. And if Langdon can't follow the clues to the lair of the Illuminati, the Vatican itself could be destroyed by a cylinder of stolen anti-matter.
It's somewhat fitting that in Angels & Demons, the greatest threat comes from something representing the complete absence of substance. Langdon has the potential to be a really entertaining character-a true, non-Indiana Jones academic thrust into life-threatening situations-but nobody involved appears the slightest bit interested in exploring that character. Hanks is once again stripped of his likeability, furrowing his brow and scowling as though he's embarrassed to be a part of the thing even as he's filming it. And they manage to find an even less interesting female counterpart in Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), a physicist whose personality begins and ends with her ability to spout all the necessary tech-babble about the threat posed by the anti-matter. As was true in Da Vinci, Howard simply allows Langdon's puzzle-solving to carry us from one place to the next, like some life-or-death scavenger hunt.
As for whether or not Angels & Demons stomps on the sensibilities of the faithful, it's certainly more generous than The Da Vinci Code. This one asks a few fairly interesting questions about the interplay between science and faith, with an apparent battle for the Church's future between an old-school cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) and the deceased Pope's young counselor (Ewan McGregor). But treating its themes with too much gravity is part of the problem in the first place. Whatever its thoughts on religious authority, let's not forget that Angels & Demons is a movie about people racing around Rome trying to prevent an anti-matter explosion.
There's a fleeting moment-near the end, and far too late-when Howard almost sees what this series could have been. As the cardinals make their crucial vote on who will be the next Pontiff, Howard tracks along the Pope-announcing Vatican chimney through the building towards the rooftop smoke, the score pounding as though we were watching the fuse of a bomb. Give me that kind of silliness, with all its attendant guilty pleasures, rather than watching the smudgy smoke rising from this dud.
ANGELS & DEMONS ★★✩✩✩
Directed by Ron Howard
Starring: Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer, Ewan McGregor, Rated PG-13.