The better angels of our nature
Inferno, the third installment in Ron Howard’s series of Dan Brown adaptations starring Tom Hanks, arrives in theaters this weekend. Like Jack Reacher, it’s a franchise that doesn’t exactly have an enthusiastic following, and it seems to exist largely as a strategic component in the careers of its star and director. (This sequel, at least, appears to have a realistic view of its prospects: its budget is half that of its predecessor.) I wouldn’t even be mentioning it here if it weren’t for an embarrassing personal confession. I’m not a fan of the Robert Langdon books. If anything, I’m inclined to dislike them more than many readers, because I genuinely enjoy the idea of the conspiracy thriller. I even wrote an entire novel, The Icon Thief, in part to tell precisely that kind of story in the way I thought it deserved to be told. Even after the letdown of The Da Vinci Code, I was optimistic enough to buy The Lost Symbol, on the reasoning that a sequel released under high pressure by a major publisher would be a slick, tightly edited product—which didn’t turn out to be the case. I haven’t read any of the others. But here’s my confession: Angels & Demons, the film based on the first novel in the series, might be one of my stealth favorite movies. Even as I type this, I know how ridiculous it sounds. This isn’t a film that anyone remembers fondly. You don’t see video boxes proclaiming: “The best thriller since Angels & Demons.”
Why do I love it so much? Maybe it’s because it came out only seven years ago, but it already feels like a relic of another era, in which a studio could spend $150 million on a ridiculous summer movie aimed squarely at viewers over thirty. I’ve written here before that what I want from Hollywood, more than just about anything else, is slick, entertaining junk for grownups. These days, the industry has gravitated toward two opposing extremes, with superhero movies giving way in the winter to prestige pictures that feel like the cinematic equivalent of taking your medicine. Yet the most exciting periods in movie history were in decades when you could often see a reasonably clever director and screenwriter doing diverting things for ninety minutes with a couple of attractive stars. Aside from the occasional Bond or Ethan Hunt vehicle, this sort of thing has become dishearteningly rare, to the point where I’ve actually found myself looking forward to movies like Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. (Oddly enough, we’re currently in the middle of a fairly good stretch for mainstream adult thrillers: along with Inferno, the last few weeks have given us The Girl on the Train, The Accountant, and a second Jack Reacher movie. I haven’t managed to see any of them, of course—which may be the real reason why adults in their late thirties aren’t seen as a desirable demographic.) And while Angels & Demons is far from a masterpiece, it feels like a blockbuster from an alternate universe, in which a lot of money and talent could be gloriously squandered by a film that couldn’t possibly interest a twelve year old.
But I don’t want to downplay its legitimate strengths, either. To say that the money is all there on the screen may not seem like heartfelt praise, but it is. There’s plenty of digital imagery, but it’s unobtrusive, and at a time when the climax of every comic book movie makes me feel like I’m watching a cartoon about two robots having a fistfight, it’s nice to see an expensive production set in something like the real world. It’s equally refreshing to watch a movie that takes pleasure in the locations, simulated or otherwise, of a single beautiful city. Its Rome is a nocturnal metropolis of golden lights against water, glossy marble churches, and fast cars winding through narrow streets, and it reminds us of how films like the Bourne movies flit so quickly from one landmark to another that we never have a chance to enjoy our surroundings. It helps, too, that the movie is populated by so many appealing players. There’s Hanks, of course, who I suspect secretly relishes playing Robert Langdon as kind of a smug asshole, and Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgård, who are here only for the paycheck. But we also have the tough, beautiful Ayelet Zurer; Armin Mueller-Stahl, very good in the thankless role of a red herring in a cassock; and character actors with great faces like Pierfrancesco Favino and Nikolaj Lie Kass. The script by Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp keeps all the wheels turning nicely, and it clearly learned the lessons of The Da Vinci Code—the action is clean and rapid without being relentless, and you’re left feeling refreshed, rather than pummeled.
It all adds up to one of my favorite guilty pleasures, right up there with the first season of The Hills, and for many of the same reasons. There are sequences of high camp that make me grin like an idiot whenever I think about them: Langdon’s unsolicited lecture about Pius IX and “the great castration,” which makes him seem even more pompous than usual, or the priceless moment when the Camerlengo points a finger at his assailant and shouts: “Illuminatus!” This kind of thing pleases me enormously. I also like how the villain’s master plan hinges entirely on Langdon’s ability to figure out the plot with split-second precision, and how the whole conspiracy would be foiled if the timing were off by a few minutes in either direction. And unlike so many thrillers, it knows how to give a worthy death scene to its bad guy, who, after being exposed and pursued through St. Peter’s Church, burns himself to death at the altar, and for no particular reason. The result slips invisibly over the borderline from being a great bad movie to one that I can almost recommend on its own merits. Although it’s ravishingly pretty, it’s probably best experienced at home, on a disc bought from a cutout bin at Best Buy, which makes its immense technical resources—a little overwhelming or oppressive in the theater—seem like an act of unsolicited generosity. And it sticks in your head. A few months ago, I was watching Spectre, which was filmed on many of the same locations, when I found myself thinking: “I’d rather be watching Angels & Demons.” I’m probably the only person in the world who said this to himself. But I did. I’d be happy to put it on again tonight. And maybe I will.