06/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Angels & Demons: Clanky and Clunky

The mechanism creaks and groans as Tom Hanks tools around Rome, trying to halt an imminent threat to blow up Vatican City in Ron Howard's clanking film of Dan Brown's Angels & Demons.

The DaVinci Code was the sequel/prequel to this tale: sequel to the book of Angels & Demons, but prequel to the movie. It doesn't really matter. It's not as if one movie gains resonance from the other.

Once again, we're in the realm of Harvard professor Robert Langdon, an academic symbologist and supersleuth of religious iconography. Naturally, when a group of cardinals are kidnapped, the Vatican City cops turn to ... a symbologist.

But what a great symbologist: He's able to look at statues and figure out which ones are pointing in the direction of clues and which ones are just, well, pointing.

Anyway, there's strange business afoot in the Vatican. The old progressive pope has died (I guess I missed that week when the pope was progressive). As it happens, the kidnapped cardinals are all frontrunners to replace the recently deceased pope. The kidnappers identify themselves as the Illuminati, an extinct sect of apostates that tried to reconcile religion and science. They say they plan to kill one cardinal each hour before blowing up the Vatican. They aren't even making demands.

Here's the best part: The bomb is a container of anti-matter. Rogue nuclear weapons apparently aren't scary enough. It was stolen from a particle-collider facility in Switzerland by agents of the Illuminati for exactly this purpose.

Who can figure out the symbols in time to stop the destruction of the Vatican? Why, only that skeptically spiritual Robert Langdon - aided by a leggy physicist played by Ayelet Zurer (she helped make the anti-matter). Aided also by his mastery of symbols. He reads those statues like a roadmap, helping the police stay just a few minutes behind the killer who is leaving cardinals' corpses at a series of churches.

Howard keeps his cameras moving restlessly, a tactic meant to disguise the fact that, more often than not, nothing's really happening. Just a lot of shots of Hanks and Zurer jumping out of cars, striding purposefully from Point A to Point B - the swirling camera makes the moment appear dynamic, though it's really just on-location filler.

Otherwise, there's not much real action: a shoot-out in a church that mostly consists of an expert assassin casually eliminating Italian cops using a silenced handgun. There are a few horrific images - an eye that's been plucked from its socket and left on a linoleum floor, a few corpses that have been branded like Goth groupies.

In other words, enough violent imagery at regular enough intervals to keep that look of worry creasing Tom Hanks' brow. Hanks has lost the terrible hairdo from the previous film, replacing it with a bad middle part. Otherwise, he seems as bemused and disengaged here as he did in DaVinci Code.

The rest of the cast is stacked with red-herring actors, unsavory types played by such erstwhile villains as Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller-Stahl. Meanwhile, the brave young priest, the voice of reason about the role of science in the church, is played by Ewan McGregor - Obi-wan Kenobi himself. The misdirection seems heavy-handed.

Where DaVinci Code offered a creepy, secret conspiracy within the Church, the plot here is decidedly less elaborate. The Illuminati are simply the terrorists du jour, the latest version of the crazed villain who won't be stopped. It's never quite clear why the Illluminati, who apparently strove to be the voice of reason and rationality, would turn to bloody vengeance and mass murder when it didn't get its way. In any case, there's much less than meets the eye in Angels & Demons.

Professionally outraged spokespeople to the contrary, Angels & Demons has nothing more incendiary to offer about the Catholic Church than the notion that, gee, perhaps you should try to be a little more open-minded. Heresy, I realize, but what can you expect from godless Hollywood?

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