There are too many demons, too few angels and not nearly enough grace to save "Angels & Demons," the latest Dan Brown-inspired religious action thriller (three words you don't usually see together). Nail-biting, God-fearing and unfolding at a breakneck pace -- a little like "The Da Vinci Code" on celestial speed -- ultimately everything wilts under the weight of the complicated story lines of its many saints and sinners.
Tom Hanks is back, with much better hair, as Professor Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist we first encountered in 2006 cracking the Da Vinci Code and unlocking its Mona Lisa mysteries. In Langdon, Brown has created a cross between a claustrophobic Columbo of Catholicism and a biblically inclined Indiana Jones, and it's hard to imagine anyone but Hanks being able to pull off the role in any credible way.
Science and religion are at war here, an ages-old grudge match that goes back to a rift between Galileo and the Vatican, when freethinkers of all stripes were forced underground if they wanted to keep discussing crazy theories like the Earth spinning around the sun. Out of that repression, the Illuminati, a secret society, with a serious decoder system of churches and statues and rituals and words, was born.
Just when everyone thought they'd long since disappeared, four Cardinals are kidnapped on the eve of a conclave called to replace the pope, a progressive thinker who has conveniently died. The Illuminati is not only claiming responsibility but setting about to brand (yes, brand, as in molten metal searing skin) each of the Cardinals before killing them at the rate of one an hour and gruesomely staged for maximum effect. If that wasn't frightening enough, there are dark hints of the Vatican being consumed by light at the stroke of midnight.
Meanwhile (there is always a "meanwhile" in Dan Brown's densely plotted tomes), a prominent research facility in Geneva has succeeded in creating anti-matter, the substance that everything is made of. Creation, my friends, courtesy of colliding particles, and we get to see it. Though before we witness the Big Bang, those unseen particles -- dubbed "God particles" in case you've missed the allusions that have been falling around us like a hard rain -- race through a complex maze of underground pipes that look like they might carry sewage except they're polished to a blinding high sheen. Even a Hans Zimmer orchestration with lots of swells and cymbals (versus symbols) doesn't help.
Then, wouldn't you know it, despite incredible levels of security, one of the anti-matter canisters is stolen and its lava-lamp likeness turns up on a Vatican camera, though in this high-tech wireless world, the Swiss Guards who protect the pope and his environs have no idea where it is, an issue they've hopefully resolved since the book came out.
Through all this Langdon has been swimming laps at the Harvard gym. But wave the word "Illuminati" in front of him and he's at Vatican headquarters in a flash -- ahem, a man of science called to save the church.
"Oh, good, the symbologist has arrived," says a droll Swiss Guard Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), whose biting skepticism helps keep the pompous in perspective. (He's not the only actor who seems to be telegraphing that "Angels & Demons" shouldn't be taken all that seriously.) By now the beautiful Italian scientist Vittoria Vetra, an underused Ayelet Zurer, has shown up as the brains behind the anti-matter brew.
As if this arena weren't already standing room only, there's the plethora of villains and heroes, most prominently Ewan McGregor's Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, whose pale skin, watery eyes and soulful observations are a perfect fit for playing the late pope's right-hand man.
Many weighty philosophical questions are thrown out along the way, including the "big" one, "Do you believe in God?" posed by the Camerlengo to Langdon. I suspect they were designed to fool you into thinking "Angels & Demons" is more than what it is -- an old-fashioned, big-budget action flick dressed up in cassocks and collars, bleeding red and pretending spirituality.
To his credit, director Ron Howard tried to make some course corrections after "The Da Vinci Code." He and screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have lost a few of the book's schemes and schemers to keep the film on fast forward. The "Angels' " killer is dressed in a natty suit rather than wool robes that hid a penchant for self-mutilation that we had to suffer through in "Da Vinci," though the killings themselves are far more perverse and brutal. And much of what is supposed to pass for dialogue is merely a recitation of fact, but at least we've been spared the historical flashbacks with the books-on-tape voice-overs that so pulled at the seams of "The Da Vinci Code."
Where "Angels & Demons" succeeds best is in its look and speed. With much of the story set in and around Vatican City, a shrine to art as much as God, Howard has a rich canvas, used to great effect by production designer Allan Cameron. Meanwhile, the action and the effects come so fast and furiously, if you turn away for a second you may miss a murder.
Where the film ultimately fails is that Howard never really takes control of the ideas. The director is far too reverential, leaving "Angels & Demons" to reflect Dan Brown's hackneyed vision rather than his own.
'Angels & Demons'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material
Running time: 2 hours,
Playing: In general release