As I watched 'Angels & Demons,' the much-hyped, high-voltage follow-up to 'The Da Vinci Code,' I often had trouble distinguishing it from a condensed season of the TV thriller '24.' The two not only share the same producer, Brian Grazer, but also the same frenetic, twist-filled, race-against-time plotline in which the safety of the free world – or in this case, the future viability of the Catholic Church – hangs in the balance. Director Ron Howard even divides the story into convenient, almost episodic hourly sections, and constantly reminds us of the ticking clock by stamping frequent time markers on the bottom of the screen throughout the film. And though hero Robert Langdon is a poor man's Jack Bauer, Tom Hanks proves he's macho enough to fill Kiefer Sutherland's shoes should the '24' star ever decide to hang up his holster and catch a few zzzzs.
Comparisons to small-screen thrillers aside, let's state one irrefutable fact right away. 'Angels & Demons' is without question a far better, much more enjoyable and involving movie than 'The Da Vinci Code.' Of course, how could it not be? Few blockbusters are as dull, plodding, aloof, and self-satisfied as the 2006 adaptation of Dan Brown's breakthrough mega seller, so topping it was a piece of cake. To their credit, though, Howard and company recognized their mistakes from the previous film and learned from them, and set out to produce if not the antithesis of 'The Da Vinci Code,' then at least a revved up, supped up "sequel" that would keep audiences so breathless they wouldn't even need to follow the convoluted plot to be entertained.
Unfortunately, they overcompensated just a tad. Action, not surprisingly, rules the day, but there's so much of it, the movie is about as subtle and graceful as a stampeding elephant. The camera continually swoops and swirls as if it were an angel or demon, the body count rivals that of 'Die Hard,' and the climactic celestial phenomenon recalls the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in the first Indiana Jones flick. 'Angels & Demons' puts forth quite a spectacle, but goes way over the top, with just a soupcon of substance to lend it an artificial prestige.
Of course, that's the essence of Dan Brown, and exactly why he's one of the wealthiest authors on the planet. His fertile imagination, hungry intellect, and masterful plot weaving have fueled his religious-themed novels, but the script for 'Angels & Demons' (written by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman) whizzes by with such alacrity, laser attention is required to follow the story's myriad intricacies. I won't even attempt a full synopsis here; suffice it to say religious guru Robert Langdon (Hanks) jumps into service once again, this time to combat the Illuminati, a rebellious religious sect that has risen from dormancy to inflict revenge on the Catholic Church for centuries-old persecutions. The group kidnaps four Cardinals, each of whom is a strong candidate to replace the recently deceased Pope, and promises to kill one each hour, and then detonate a deadly substance that will destroy The Vatican. Langdon, along with his gal Friday, scientist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), must crack codes, link clues, comb catacombs, scour vaults, and crisscross Rome (all in about four hours!) to try to save the hostages, thwart the Illuminati, and discover who is the driving force behind the dastardly plan.
Part of the fun of films like these is methodically learning about an obscure topic and connecting all the dots, and though the script disseminates plenty of fascinating religious history and trivia along the way, the actors often sound like they're cramming for a college final, and their rapid-fire line deliveries leave our heads spinning. With no time for reflection (the Vatican certainly wouldn't approve of that!), all we can do is strap ourselves in and enjoy the wild ride. Of course, there's no end to the visual stimulation, with a host of gorgeous Italian locales, the Vatican backdrop, and violent skirmishes all vying for our attention. (And if you choose to watch the exclusive extended edition of the film on this Blu-ray disc, you'll get an eyeful of extra gore, too.) It's all slickly presented, but Howard seems like he's on autopilot, with no distinct touches or nuances shading quieter moments. And for a plot with so much complexity, the ultimate twist is far too easy to figure out.
Hanks sports a better hairdo this time around, and his workmanlike portrayal is just as solid and believable as it was in 'The Da Vinci Code.' He may not make as dashing an action hero as Daniel Craig or Hugh Jackman, but he hits his marks and gets the job done. The Israeli-born Zurer, best known to American audiences for roles in 'Munich' and 'Vantage Point,' resembles a slightly older Audrey Tautou, and reacts with appropriate horror and dismay when called upon. In more interesting roles, Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgård, and the always perfect Armin Mueller-Stahl also acquit themselves well, but acting definitely takes a back seat to action here.
'Angels & Demons' gets the blood pumping with a crackerjack story, breakneck pacing, and mayhem galore, but only satisfies on the most superficial level. Like a bit of beach reading, it's escapist entertainment designed to be devoured by the masses, then discarded. Howard's film is a blockbuster with a capital B, and though it may not be as clunky as some, for a religious-themed film, it's surprisingly soulless.
'Angels & Demons' looks slicker than the Cardinals' silk robes on Blu-ray, sporting a spotless, crystal clear 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer with limited grain, well-modulated hues, and enough vibrant contrast to lend the image fine depth and dimension. Much of the film takes place at night or in darkened interiors, yet details remain discernible, and no noise creeps into the picture. The low lighting transmits a cozy warmth that nicely offsets some of the harsher settings and draws the viewer further into the movie. Colors are used sparingly, but the Cardinals' bright red habits pop out well and resist bleeding, even when the group bands together. Blacks are deep and lush, and fleshtones look natural enough.
Close-ups are sharp, but never appear three-dimensional, and the image always stays solid and stable, even during the swift pans and tracking shots sprinkled throughout. The transfer often exudes a glossy feel, but any digital enhancements have been sparingly applied and escape notice. No banding or crush distract either.
This is another fine effort from Sony and should delight the film's devotees.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track really complements Hans Zimmer's score well. Although plenty of action effects provide the requisite aural impact, the music takes advantage of the full spectrum of dynamic range, producing excellent highs and weighty lows, and adds an elegant touch to a big, bulldozing film. Surround activity isn't quite as prominent as I would have liked, but there's enough rear channel action to add appropriate atmosphere, and a few booming accents really punctuate key events. Despite all the competing elements, dialogue never gets lost and is always easy to understand, even when whispered in conspiratorial tones.
Imaging is tight, and there's some nice stereo separation across the front speakers. The liberal use of bass also punches up the action sequences, but is always well integrated into the whole. Gunfire is crisp and distinct, and no distortion ever disrupts the balance.
This is far from reference material, but it's a well-produced, solid track that serves the movie well.
A hefty array of featurettes enhances the disc, but most segments, like the film, are pretty superficial. Howard didn't record a director's commentary, maybe because he realized he couldn't sustain a monologue about the movie for 140 minutes. I also expected to see some image galleries, but none are included. On the plus side, all the video material is in high definition.
Just because you hated 'The Da Vinci Code' (and who didn't?) doesn't mean you should skip 'Angels & Demons.' Flashy and brisk, with a byzantine plot and loads of breathless action, this gargantuan blockbuster is enjoyable enough while it lasts, but won't get under your skin. Quality video and audio transfers, and a decent smorgasbord of supplements will certainly please fans, and even if you're not a Dan Brown fanatic, this popcorn mystery is definitely worth a look.