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Enjoyable hokum - as long as you don't take it too seriously
on 20 September 2010
The almost universally derided but hugely successful The DaVinci Code turns out to be surprisingly entertaining hokum. In many ways Ron Howard is the perfect director for it - he still can't create a decent suspense sequence in a thriller but, unashamedly populist and one of the directors least likely to overestimate his audience's intelligence, he keeps things fairly clear and surprisingly inoffensive: it's more likely to be the atheists looking for a flag to rally around who'll feel betrayed than the religious, with the film going to pains to emphasise that being mortal need not invalidate Jesus' message or the value of faith. Indeed, the villain turns out not to be a church figure but the kind of obsessive conspiracy nut who probably makes up the novel's target audience, albeit one ingeniously using the Church as his own personal hitman.
The film does a surprisingly imaginative job of illustrating the film's extensive exposition with everything from PowerPoint presentations and computer graphic representations of the thought process to some visually striking flashbacks that are also well invoked to imply memories, phobias and personal backstories, while the script has fun setting up various characters as the villain-in-chief only to pull the rug from under you. Even the constant puzzles that drive the story like some sudoko thriller are generally presented in a pleasingly cinematic manner. The film's big conspiracy - hardly a secret people will kill to cover up since it's been the subject of books for decades - doesn't hold water for a second, relying on finding connections and patterns where none exist, altering pictures to change their meaning and quoting apocryphal works and offering speculation as fact in such a way that the same method could probably also be used to prove that the secret child of Top Cat and Judy Jetson is the true heir to the throne of Great Britain, but at least the film's hero is allowed to puncture some of the more absurd elements as pure conjecture or disproven nonsense (provoking the inevitable "That's what they want you to think!" response) before finally seeing the light. There's also something rather naïve in the story's belief that if the big story is finally revealed, all war and sexual oppression will disappear overnight, something only underlined by the killer's over-the-top final moments.
It's generally well cast (even if Tom Hanks pronunciation is a little odd at times while actors like Jean-Pierre Marielle are wasted on nothing parts) and has a surprising amount of momentum and drive before things slow to a crawl for the lengthy epilogue, while Hans Zimmer throws in an effective score, making for a surprisingly entertaining cinematic scavenger hunt. Which makes it all the more surprising how weak the slightly better reviewed follow-up, Angels and Demons, turned out. The kind of film that manages to look at once expensive and cheap, it's a lot less effective than the first film - the casting is much poorer, the script considerably weaker (especially one big rallying speech) and the absence of flashback montages makes the exposition seem far more perfunctory than its predecessor, not least because Hanks seems so bored with it all for much of the movie. Even the literal ticking clock device that drives the plot fails to produce any tension despite the high stakes, the villain and his motivation fairly obvious through heavy-handed writing and a couple of strikingly unconvincingly acted scenes long before the absurd sequence involving an anti-matter bomb, a helicopter and a parachute... Everything is more run-of-the-mill here - even the internal Vatican politics play like the kind of TV miniseries that went out of fashion in the 70s, complete with a feelgood finale that sees its medieval conspiracy theory proved a blind and its atheist hero firmly back in God's good books to reassure the faithful that God is in his heaven and all's well with the Church. It's watchable but uninspired, feeling more like a film that was rushed into production to cash-in on its predecessor as quickly as possibly rather than something that took a few years to reach the screen.
The DVD set offers single-disc versions of both films in their theatrical versions with nothing of substance in the way of extra features while the Blu Ray set offers the single disc extended 174-minute cut of The Da Vinci Code with picture-in-picture featurettes and interviews and both the theatrical and extended cuts of Angels and Demons.