To say that the film version of Dan Brown's bestselling Angels & Demons is better than the static anti-cinema that was The Da Vinci Code is like saying oral surgery is better with Novocain. Director Ron Howard eases off on the pain this time by speeding up the pace, toning down the exposition and lighting a fire under the actors. But the movie is still, in the words that Tom Hanks applied to 2006's Da Vinci Code, "loaded with all sorts of hooey."
Hanks is back as Harvard prof Robert Langdon, but this time minus the funny haircut. He is again forced to mouth the Brown techno-blather. In Brown-speak, Angels & Demons might be described this way: An American symbolist heads to Vatican City to find stolen CERN antimatter, save the preferiti from painful breast branding with the Illuminati ambigram, and help the Swiss Guards and the camerlengo decipher clues to the primordial elements in time to rescue the papal conclave.
Short version: Hanks — looking fit after a few laps in the Harvard pool — is back in Rome on a mission. The pope is dead. Four cardinals in line to succeed are held by a kidnapper who threatens to kill one an hour and sear their flesh with the symbols for earth, air, fire and water. Is it the Illuminati, a secret sect of scientific freethinkers long at odds with the church's resistance to science?
Father Patrick McKenna (a live-wire Ewan McGregor) sure thinks so. Patrick is the camerlengo, the acting head of the Vatican until the new pope is elected. He was Italian in the book, changed to Irish here to accommodate the Scottish McGregor. Huh? What? And then there's hottie Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra, played by Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer. Huh? What? The ante is upped when Vittoria reports that an antimatter bomb has been stolen from her murdered father's lab. Unless Robert and Vittoria — no sex, please, there's a plot afoot — can end-run the Swiss Guard commander (Stellan Skarsgård) and fearless Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), Vatican City will blow.
Brown wrote Angels & Demons before The Da Vinci Code, but Howard and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp have made it a sequel, with the Vatican still steamed by Robert's theory that Jesus was a married family guy. No wonder Catholics howled. The defunct Illuminati is hardly in the hot-button league. Angels & Demons drops the book's bizarre paternity issues and avoids heresy that sparks protests. Which is all to the good. Without pretensions to profundity, the movie can be enjoyed for the hell-raising hooey it is.