When in Rome...

Ron Howard and Dan Brown have a lot in common. Both are good at distorting the truth for the sake of entertainment. Howard distorted the truths in A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which were supposedly true stories, and Brown’s novels are the target of much skepticism and sensationalism. It’s no wonder that Howard and Brown go so well together, and add Tom Hanks to the picture and you’ve got yourself a bona fide blockbuster.

That was the case of Da Vinci Code, which was the first venture for Brown, Howard and Hanks. It proved to be a controversial hit (both as a book and a movie), enabling the production of Angels & Demons, the book set before Da Vinci Code.

Director Ron Howard has taken a different path for Angels & Demons. He treats the movie as a sequel rather than a prequel, establishing that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) had become a more confident character after the adventure in Da Vinci Code. Just like Brown distorts historical facts and history itself, Howard distorts the work of Brown. There are more liberties taken this time around simply because Angels & Demons is not as well known as its prequel. Speaking about the adapting the book, Howard said, “it's very much about modernity clashing with antiquity and technology vs. faith, so these themes, these ideas are much more active whereas the other one lived so much in the past. The tones are just innately so different between the two stories.”

Indeed, whereas the two stories share a theme of mystery and intrigue, Angels & Demons is totally about the now; the newest technologies with often futuristic overtones. Though at times, with mentions of things like Dark Matter, CERN and The Large Hadron Collider, you’d think you need a science degree to understand exactly what the story is on about, but the writing and directing seamlessly integrate jargon and make the movie enjoyable and not a drone of incomprehensible jargon.

The story begins in Rome, where the Vatican mourns the passing of the Pope. During this time of mourning, it is Patrick Mackenna (Ewan McGregor) who assumes day-to-day control of the Vatican as the Camerlengo. And while the world waits for the signal from the Conclave that a new Pope has been chosen, the Illuminati, a 400-year old underground secret society run by mad scientists, kidnap the most likely candidates. The Illuminati threaten to murder the candidates as vengeance for ‘La Purga’, an ancient ritual where members of the society were executed by the Church. Being the crazy cult / mad scientists they are, they demand a ransom which if the Vatican fails to pay will result in the destruction of the city itself.

This is where the Vatican does the obvious (when a city is held by a group of cultists) and summons Langdon (Tom Hanks) and a specialist from CERN, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Langdon immediately realizes, after much clever deduction, that clues to finding the Illuminati are found not only in history but also the entire city as well. Tom Hanks portrays Robert Langdon in a very highly minimalist mode, not because he acts very little but because he acts with ease. This time around he’s more comfortable and long expositions of his historic heavy dialogue sounds less like a monotonous speech and more like convincing dialogue.

Hanks is joined by an international actress, this time it is Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer portraying a scientist from CERN, the large European laboratory which holds the Large Haledon Collider. Zurer’s job is often very superficial with sharp reactions to Langdon’s discoveries. Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor, all bring their A-games to the table and have captivating—often scene stealing—moments in the film. The three of them are players in a Vatican power struggle that takes shape after the death of a beloved pope and the shadow of the Illuminati threat looming over the Vatican.

Skarsgard is the commander of the Swiss Guards, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl, a powerful cardinal, they are obvious heavies on the screen wheras McGregor enjoys playing a wide-eyed character with a messiah complex.

The flaw with this movie is that sometimes the plot tethers on the verge of utter silliness. Plots involving antimatter and the Vatican are hardly your average thriller stories but at its heart it is a serial killer story, with Langdon on the hunt of the mastermind behind the plot.

The movie itself suffered two major setbacks; first the Hollywood Writer’s Guild strike pushed the film back from a December 2008 release to a May 2009 one. The second setback forced the filmmakers to shoot the film in the United States, rather than the original Rome and Vatican areas. Reports indicated that the Vatican did not want any of its churches to be associated with a murder scene. However, unlike last time, this time the Vatican had no problems with the story matter. The official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called the film "harmless entertainment", giving it a positive review. It also acknowledged, "the theme is always the same: a sect versus the church, [but] this time, the church is on the side of the good guys."

Overall Angels & Demons probably has no giant transformers and no robots from the future, which means very little explosions, if any. On the other hand, the movie itself is a guided tour of Rome, the Vatican and other prestigious locations. It is filled with fun historical (slightly distorted) facts and has its thrilling moments. So if you like travel and always wanted to see the Vatican, Angel & Demons is for you. Plus you get to see Tom Hanks rescue the city from a bunch of fanatical cultists.

Not your average tourist story.

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