A dead pope. Stolen anti-matter. Tom Hanks in a Speedo. And that’s just the first three scenes of Ron Howard’s campy quasi-literate thriller. What ties this trinity together is what the Vatican deems “The God Particle”—the origin of matter that’s also its destroyer, and is now being wielded by a terrorist threatening to explode Vatican City while the devout pack St. Peter’s Square in anticipation of the naming of the new pope. First, however, the villain will execute one cardinal every hour until detonation.
With Michael Crichton recently deceased, Dan Brown is now the pontiff of pop scholarship. Like The Da Vinci Code, the more ridiculous (and more enjoyable) Angels & Demons is pulp riddled with pomp—it’s all blood and fire and last-minute sprints choked up with enough Latin to make the gullible mistake frenzy for education. (Curiously, though, while Hanks’ Harvard scholar quotes ancient texts at length, he’s inexplicably unable to read Latin or Italian, at one point leaning on a nearby Swiss cop to do his translation.
Every note of Hans Zimmer’s score screams “Gravitas!”—begging to be mashed up with some thrashing Scandinavian death metal—and the film expects us to treat its sacred and historical references with solemnity. However, it misuses them like Archie comics—in one scene, Hanks upends a bookshelf of priceless Vatican texts to break a Plexiglas wall. (Watch for the moment when Hanks fumbles a rescue operation and drops a Cardinal into a pit of fire and no one—not even him—cares.) These missteps turn Angels into a future camp classic. Where Howard wants us to make the sign of the cross, we’re slapping high fives. With Stellan Skarsgard as a Swiss commander, Ayelet Zurer as a scientist adept at running in spike heels and Ewan McGregor as an aggrieved priest who seems to have been cast both for his acting talent and his deep cleft chin, which showcases Howard’s penchant for melodramatic shadows.