Posted by: Dr P | May 20, 2009

Angels and Demons

Dear reader, I sit here penning this review at the witching hour of midnight, sat in the heart of Cambridge; the night air is balmy, yet filled wth the sounds of drunken students on Parker’s Piece below me. Surely there can never have been a finer rendition of “I will always love you” than that performed moments ago by around two dozen extremely tipsy females – not serenading me, alas, but rather aiming it at a frustrated taxi driver who keeps shouting for someone called “Billy”.

Yet I digress. Moi? Surely not. Let’s turn to the subject matter, the second big screen adaptation of a Dan Brown novel, and for me his best work to date. The Da Vinci Code was a worldwide phenomenon upon its release, a cracking conspiracy thriller based on the probable premise of Jesus having a family which was hidden from public knowledge by the church. Famously, the book is described as “arse gravy” by none other than the wonderful Stephen Fry, and to be honest I have to agree – it’s the sort of book that’s ten a penny nowadays, yet its subject matter was thought provoking. However, the Tom Hanks-led movie was plodding in my view, its only redeeming feature the stellar performance of Paul Bettany as the mad monk.

In my view, Angels and Demons was a much stronger novel. It also features the central character of Robert Langdon, and precedes the Da Vinci Code timewise. However, since the latter movie was released first, the producers clearly felt the bulk of the watching audience (Americans) wouldn’t get that the Angels and Demons really comes first, and so there are numerous references to the other film in this one. It’s a bit unnecessary. Mind you, these are the same people who removed the numbering from the original title “The Madness of King George III” as they felt the Yanks would complain that they hadn’t seen the first two films.

OK, that was even more rambling than the preceding paragraph, and I’ve still not actually made any points here. Ahem.

Right. The Pope’s dead. So what happens is that all the potential candidates to replace His Holiness gather at the Vatican, where they’re popped into a locked room and not let out until they can decide which of them is going to spend the next couple of years whizzing around in the Popemobile before the inevitable senility and or assassination occurs. Under normal circumstances this doesn’t take too long to sort, mainly because insurance on the Popemobile is an absolute bitch to get, what with them being very old drivers and likely to get shot at at a moment’s notice, and they don’t want it just sat round in the garage costing the taxpayer money. It’s no wonder they have so many collections at mass.

However, a spanner has been thrown into the works. The Illuminati, a fabled brotherhood dedicated to fighting the church’s archaic views, has resurfaced and kidnapped the 4 leading papal candidates from the gathering. They have threatened to kill each candidate in horrific ways relating to the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, water) and then unleash a holy war starting with the destruction of the Vatican. They are going to accomplish the latter by way of detonating a jar of anti matter that they’ve nicked from the laboratory at CERN.

Yes, folks, the same CERN that last year threatened to create a black hole that would swallow the world (well at least according to people who knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about particle physics and large hadron colliders – hang your heads in shame!). It does make you think that perhaps our safety as a human race might be better if we stop funding these nutters … black holes, antimatter devices … and they’re Swiss!!! Supposedly the most neutral, anti war nation on Earth! They should stick to making cuckoo clocks, yodelling and tobogganing if you ask me.

OK, so amidst the chaos, the Vatican summon Prof Robert Langdon (Hanks) to their aid – Langdon has just released a book about the Illuminati and is the nearest thing to a world expert. This is to the annoyance of the Swiss guard, the traditional protectors of the Vatican, and also not met with initial approval by the “camerlengo” (Ewan MacGregor). This character is the man appointed to hold temporary charge of the papal seat until the new Pope is appointed.

Langdon arrives in Rome just in time to be told that the 4 papal candidates are to be bumped off at hourly intervals starting at 7pm. This just leaves him time for a 4 course meal and a sightseeing trip to the Trevi fountain before he decides to get to work deciphering the messages left by the Illuminati. Basically he has to uncover an ancient route used by the original Illuminati to guide them to meeting places around the city. It is in each of these locations that the new bad guys will bump off the cardinals. So it sort of becomes a detective thing vs a chase movie. With a random hot babe thrown in.

I often wonder – as with all movies of this sort – quite why the baddies didn’t simply kill the cardinals and blow the place up right away. It’s like James Bond … “right, Mr Bond, I am leaving you here to die, there is a room filled with crocodiles, and a bomb with 30 seconds on the clock, but there’s only 12 guard, your shackles aren’t fastened properly and there’s lighter fluid and a fan randomly placed around the room, so you can escape in an improbable manner when I’ve gone.” Cue escape. Just shoot him!!!

The plot unfolds rather nicely, with a whole series of twists and turns. There’s some gruesome deaths, lots of silly antics involving 500 year old manuscripts being torn up, the deciphering of ancient riddles, Hanks plays with a random arcade machine and changes into a small boy, no hang on, that’s not right …

As the movie builds to an improbable finale, we get to see how some of the central characters are not exactly what they seem, and the lines of good and bad get blurred significantly. Plus there’s some cool branding irons. And the hot babe stays in it for ages.

Ewan MacGregor is good in this movie, but then his character is superb in the novel. Hanks plays himself as usual, he’s likeable if rather flat, and the locations and twists help make the film very watchable, and definitely superior to the Da Vinci Code. But I can’t help but feel that the book was far better. I’m not entirely sure how they could have made the movie better, but it feels very frenetic and rushed all the time – yes they’re on a race against the clock, particularly at the end when they’re attempting to stop the bomb going off, but some of the plot seems contrived and a brushed over.

I did really enjoy this though, and it’ll be interesting to see what others make of it!

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