You know him, you love him - Tom Hanks!" said David Letterman on Monday night as he called the Everyman superstar to the stage. But how well do we know him? What makes Tom Hanks run?
That question races through your mind during the technologically phenomenal yet otherwise middling antics of Angels & Demons, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code.
Although it's come out second, it's based on the first Dan Brown thriller to center on Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, an academic with a habit of butting heads with zealots.
Hanks has cut away the lank locks that he wore as Langdon in Code and put himself in tip-top shape. But when he isn't galloping from one Vatican tourist locale or sacred site to another, Hanks mugs shamelessly to let us know he knows whenever some big-wig from the Swiss Guard or the papal council is giving him the runaround. He wins laughs by cocking his head for the audience like a dog begging for a treat.
Cheap laughs beat no laughs at all (Hanks' final tally in The Da Vinci Code), but it's still a heck of a way for America's male sweetheart to earn a living. When Hanks could be challenging himself with classic American roles by Bellow or Cheever, he's become a franchise hero in the action-nerd division. Unlike Nicolas Cage in National Treasure, Hanks lacks the game for it. The surface seriousness of these Dan Brown movies obstructs his affability and easy, attentive way with romance.
Especially the latter. His leading lady, Ayelet Zurer, who plays physicist Vittoria Vetra, could split particles with her white-hot gaze. But Vetra's relationship with Langdon is so businesslike it's as if they signed a no-flirt contract. If there's a third Robert Langdon suspense movie, maybe director Ron Howard should make it a buddy film. Here you long for the chemistry Hanks had in drag with Peter Scolari in Bosom Buddies.
In Demons, as in Code , ruthless men deliver homicidal kicks to the seat of the Roman Catholic Church. This time, they're not members of the ultraconservative Opus Dei. Apparently they come from the radical Illuminati, "physicists, mathematicians, astronomers" who seek revenge for the Church's persecution of scientists.
Right after the death of a socially progressive pope, an evil force operating according to an Illuminati game-plan has launched a mini-apocalypse: kidnapping the four leading candidates for the papal succession and threatening to kill each of them on successive hours. Unless Langdon can stop it, the destruction will end with the annihilation of the Vatican at midnight.
Brown festoons his plot with visual and verbal clues that lead Langdon to the execution sites and then on to ground zero, usually a minute too late. Even when they're arcane or intriguing, these clues function as simply as the breadcrumbs in Hansel and Gretel.
Despite skillful gastric-bypass surgery on Brown's book, screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva can't elevate the use of hidden meanings in antique sculptures beyond the level of the usual suspense-film puzzlers. Die Hard With a Vengeance did this sort of thing better.
Denied access to Vatican locations, director Howard re-creates the sumptuous or decaying plot-sites with a real moviemaker's sense of space. He knows that evoking the size of a plaza is essential to showcasing its decorative art. The visual climaxes are full, not cluttered. The media savvy that energized his Frost/Nixon produces welcome satiric blasts at world broadcasters champing at the bit for news of the papal succession and catering their reports to home markets.
But red herrings swamp the high points. And though Howard recklessly burns bodies and spills kilos of blood, the images provide no lasting aura of demonic sadism, cool villainy or twisted passion. Talents such as Ewan McGregor, Stellan Skarsgard and Armin Mueller-Stahl bring conviction but little shading to this melodrama. It remains almost ridiculously black and white even when some characters who act "evil" turn out to be "good" and vice versa. The one gray area Howard and his collaborators stake out is the point where neither science nor faith can provide certainty.
"My mind tells me I will never understand God," says Vetra, in dialogue straight out of the book, "and my heart tells me I am not meant to." The spectacle, though, provokes neither curiosity nor belief. Like Hanks' performance, it's more attractive than the action in The Da Vinci Code, but equally glib and hollow.
In Angels & Demons, the filmmakers expend a lot of time, craft and energy just to keep a potboiler at low-to-medium boil.
Angels & Demons
(Columbia Pictures) Starring Tom Hanks, Ayelet Zurer and Ewan McGregor. Directed by Ron Howard. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and disturbing images. Time 139 minutes.