By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The improvement of Angels & Demons over The Da Vinci Code is nothing short of miraculous. Director Ron Howard made his first adaptation of a Dan Brown theo-thriller novel so turgid that it sang its own praises while never deserving ours.
Howard apparently took aesthetic criticism leveled at The Da Vinci Code seriously, goosing the sequel — which is actually Brown's first Robert Langdon adventure — to another level of action and suspense. The difference is like night and day, or in the proper spiritual vein, darkness and light.
For starters, Angels & Demons is a niftier yarn, with a deadline narrative propelled by grisly Vatican murders and mutilations, plus a conspiracy that while preposterous never strays toward blasphemy like The Da Vinci Code. That is, unless seeing holy men on fire or hideously maimed offends your sensibilities.
Howard and his screenwriters still have characters spilling torrents of exposition — clues are loquaciously translated, explained and deduced throughout — but cutting to a tense chase, rescue and climatic catastrophe makes everything easier to swallow than the first film's hoo-ha about divine bloodlines.
Langdon, again played earnestly by Tom Hanks, is summoned by Vatican officials to solve the kidnappings of four cardinals, the favorites to replace a recently deceased pope. The culprits appear to be members of the Illimunati, a secret clique of Catholics whose heretic belief in science over theology goes as far back as Galileo. One abducted cardinal will be killed each hour until midnight, when something even more startling is planned.
Along the way, decoded clues drag Langdon around Rome and Vatican City at a breakneck pace, with only an extended stop in a papal library allowing anyone to catch their breath. Secret crypts and passageways are discovered, the Vatican's inner sanctums and politics revealed (or at least alleged) and the body count rises as midnight approaches.
Langdon is joined by physicist Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), whose supercollider experiments have harnessed pure energy that was stolen, apparently by the Illuminati. The pope's right-hand priest, Father Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), is the balancing influence between papal protocol and whatever Langdon needs to crack the mystery.
Opposition comes in the forms of Swiss Guard commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard) and Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose protectiveness of Vatican secrets — and possible coveting of power — makes them immediate suspects. There isn't a false note among these actors despite being saddled with such implausible drama.
But this time Howard works like he realizes this is a tall tale, and not the deconstruction of religious dogma that The Da Vinci Code was propped up to be, first by Brown, then by movie marketers. Angels & Demons is simply popcorn escapism dressed in papal robes, without any agenda except to entertain. It's also likely the most intelligent movie of the summer, and that's always a reason for hallelujahs.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.