The Vatican Drag

Faith and theology do battle in Angels and Demons

Angels and Demons ** Opens Friday areawide

Despite a prose style distinguished by its stunning ineptitude, Dan Brown is one of the world's top-selling authors. Consider the opening sentence of his crypto-religious thriller The Da Vinci Code: "Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum's Grand Gallery." Of course it's important to know that the curator is "renowned" as he staggers through the archway. Or this: "On his hands and knees, the curator froze, turning his head slowly." It's hard to find writing worse than that.

But what does it matter? The Da Vinci Code sold more than almost any book in history. Brown's page-turners are what people confined on long plane rides praise as "a good read."

Director Ron Howard's 2006 Da Vinci Code adaptation relieved the book of its one saving grace: briskness. Critics panned the movie as bloated and contrived. Stung by the reviews, Howard rethought his approach before adapting Brown's Angels and Demons (which was published before Da Vinci, but which Howard treats as a sequel). With writers David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, he condensed the plot and made things less stagy, using the handheld cameras he employed in Frost/Nixon. So, instead of characters standing around speechifying, they speechify while walking down hallways.

Tom Hanks reprises his role as Harvard professor Robert Langdon, who's summoned to the Vatican to investigate a plot to kill four cardinals and destroy St. Peter's Basilica with a stolen anti-matter device, whose developer, physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), teams up with Langdon. The villains are said to be the Illuminati, the Enlightenment secret society that wants revenge for the church's sins against science, including the persecution of Galileo (which, in fact, has been greatly exaggerated).

There's a lot of dashing about, some ghastly killings, a possibly murdered pope, ominous pseudo-Carmina Burana choral music and a visually impressive scene involving an airplane. Hanks seems strangely detached, even though he's the central character.

The movie lacks even the frisson of the forbidden: The Vatican isn't protesting, like it did The Da Vinci Code, since the story is more or less pro-church. What fun is that?

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