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Friday, May 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

This "Code" doesn't have any zip

Seattle Times movie critic

I read Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" last year on a train, and in retrospect that seems the perfect way to experience this clunkily written but compelling novel: The constant forward motion of the train gave an additional urgency to the story, a high-speed art-world-meets-theology treasure hunt that mostly takes place over one long night and morning. You keep reading, breathlessly turning pages, not because you're dazzled by the language or intrigued by the characters, but simply because you want to know what happens next — you wonder how long Brown can sustain this high-wire act.

Rereading it on nonmoving terrain, just before seeing the film, it felt much flatter — that breakneck pace was still there, but it wasn't enough. Those watching Ron Howard's stylish film version, starring Tom Hanks as Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon and Audrey Tautou as cryptologist Sophie Neveu, may experience the same problem. When you know what's coming — and, based on the book's sales, an awful lot of us do — the experience feels more like a checklist: Here's the Louvre, here's the Swiss bank vault, here's Westminster Abbey. The suspense is gone, and Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman haven't found a way to inject new life into it. It's not impossible to bring cinematic surprises to a book everyone knows — the last two "Harry Potter" movies, for example, have done it nicely — but it requires a less-literal approach than has been taken here.

Movie review2 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"The Da Vinci Code," with Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, Jürgen Prochnow, Paul Bettany, Jean Reno. Directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 149 minutes. Rated PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content. Several theaters.

Though the book seems to scream "movie," it's actually a tricky project to transfer to film: Brown's story, with its fact-mixed-with-fiction forays into history, art, theology and codebreaking, relies excessively on lengthy explanatory dialogue, which would stop a movie in its tracks — and, alas, often does. By necessity, the film strips out much of the novel's often endless conversations. (The unabridged audiobook of "The Da Vinci Code," it should be noted, is 16 hours long.) And yet the result, at two-and-a-half hours, feels overlong.

At heart, though, there's something appealing about a thriller in which the leading man, at a climactic point in the film, says in urgent tones, "I have to get to a library. Fast." And Hanks' relaxed performance goes a long way toward making Langdon, who on paper often seems rather full of himself, a likable and stalwart hero. Tautou, her usual sparkly charm tamped down, does her best with an underwritten character; she and Hanks have little chemistry, but the script doesn't give them much room for any.

This leaves the movie ripe for stealing, and Ian McKellen, as eccentric religious historian Sir Leigh Teabing, snatches it up nicely. Swathed in a silk dressing gown, he has an almost feline charm, bouncing through his scenes as if happily cushioned by his character's wealth. Upon exiting his private plane to find police waiting, he tells them silkily that they've no right to detain him, but if they insist, they'll just have to shoot. "You can start with him," he purrs, pointing to his manservant. Jean Reno, criminally underused, conveys a world of unspoken frustration in police captain Bezu Fache's sad eyes.

Despite its occasional pleasures (not the least of which is some early up-close peeks at portraits in the Louvre, their eyes peering at the camera as if suspicious), this tame thriller does little to justify the media blitz around it. (The film is a bit less strident than the book about its main theological bombshell regarding Jesus and Mary Magdalene — here, it's presented as more theory than fact.) Ultimately, it's a work of fiction that, translated to another medium, seems to have lost its punch. Maybe it screens better on a train.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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