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Originally published May 14, 2009 at 4:09 PM | Page modified May 14, 2009 at 6:16 PM

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Movie review

"Angels & Demons": Tom Hanks is back to crack a devilish murder case

A symbologist (Tom Hanks) and a hot scientist (Ayelet Zurer) run and talk — a lot — in "Angels & Demons," an OK action movie that nevertheless improves on Dan Brown's book. Review by Moira Macdonald.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 2 stars

"Angels & Demons," with Tom Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan Skarsgård, Pierfrancesco Favino, Nikolaj Lie Kass, Armin Mueller-Stahl. Directed by Ron Howard, from a screenplay by David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. 138 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence, disturbing images and thematic material. Several theaters.

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Dan Brown's novel "Angels & Demons" is essentially made up of talking and running; Ron Howard's new film is much the same. But this is one of those cases where the film is just a bit better than the book; remove much of Brown's clunky dialogue (though not nearly enough) and add instead some lovely Rome location shots and a sweeping score featuring faint heavenly choirs, and you've got a passable action thriller.

Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman have done a welcome hatchet job on the book: eliminating some characters, cutting a number of scenes of peril, making drastic changes to the airborne final act and keeping the science-vs.-religion debate to a bare (and fairly innocuous) minimum.

But the essential story remains the same. Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), whose hair is much improved from that "The Da Vinci Code" mullet, is summoned to a Swiss research facility to assist with the interpretation of a branding found on a murdered physicist. This leads Langdon to the Illuminati, a secret brotherhood with a long vendetta against the Catholic Church, and to a ticking clock: The Illuminati have snatched a canister of antimatter, which can blow up all of Vatican City in an instant.

Assisted by researcher Vittoria Vestra (Ayelet Zurer), who will henceforth be known as The Hot Scientist because that's about all the personality she's allowed to have, Langdon tracks down mysterious clues, races from crypt to crypt, uncovers some gruesome scenes of violence and murder (rather nastier than the PG-13 rating would indicate) and explains numerous arcane points of symbology and religious history to people who already know. (It's an awkward way of keeping the audience up to speed; this movie is filled with actors nodding and saying "Exactly.")

Surprisingly, though, it all works marginally better than Howard's plodding "The Da Vinci Code" movie in 2006; "Angels & Demons" does have some nice action sequences and a swift pace. Technically it's an impressive film; the bright-red cardinal robes, caught in the dusty lighting, are handsome, and a lavish sequence of destruction near the end is quite effective (and, from the looks of things, remarkably expensive).

Hanks, though burdened with much of the dialogue, nonetheless emerges as likably cranky, perhaps because he's not allowed to have any chemistry with The Hot Scientist. (Fans of the book will be dismayed to hear that Zurer does not spend the entire movie wandering around the Vatican in shorts and sleeveless top, but wears a tasteful dark skirt/blouse combo and flips her hair around a lot, in what I can only assume is a scientific way.)

Langdon gets to demonstrate his Rasputin-like ways of avoiding certain death and all works out as it should by the end. "Angels & Demons" slips away pretty quickly after you've watched it, in the way of most blockbuster movies, but it's diverting enough while it lasts.

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

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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