June 26, 2022

When Dan Brown’s best-selling novel The Da Vinci Code was adapted into a feature film in 2006, it caught a lot of attention for its controversial conspiracy theory that the Catholic church was involved in covering up the secret heir of Jesus Christ. But that didn’t discourage fans from showing up for the film, which became director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks’ best domestic opening. Hanks plays Robert Langdon, a symbologist and Harvard professor recruited on a scavenger hunt across France and the United Kingdom in search of clues, à la Indiana Jones. Howard and Hanks would continue with this formula and would go on to make two more sequels, Angels & Demons and Inferno, each promising a new historical mystery and cross-continent adventure yet with diminishing returns. Eventually, the franchise took a turn towards streaming with The Lost Symbol and a new Robert Langdon in Ashley Zukerman, but the show was canceled after one season. While the franchise might seem beyond repair, there are still some redeeming qualities to be found, specifically in the middle chapter of the film trilogy. Set between the death of a pope and the election of a new one, Angels & Demons follows Robert Langdon on an intense race through Rome in order to save four cardinals from being murdered. While the politics of electing a new pope has aspects of House of Cards, the film’s sinister villain provides a Saw-esque premise. With some truly intense set pieces and a compelling twist carried through Ewan McGregor’s performance, Angels & Demons actually delivers a great political thriller.

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RELATED: ANGELS & DEMONS Movie Review

On its surface, the antagonist of Angels & Demons might seem like a copy-paste of John Kramer, aka Jigsaw from the Saw franchise. Instead of low-life targets, a hired assassin — in the guise of the ancient Church enemy, the Illuminati — is tasked with kidnapping four high-profile cardinals in order to murder them in public executions. One is entombed underground, and another’s lungs are punctured as he suffocates in public. One is burned alive at a church altar, and another is drowned in a public fountain. But these murders are more than some gratuitous, gory spectacle. The cardinals are actually the prefereti, the favored priests to become the next pope. Which begs the question, who is trying to delay the election by eliminating the competition so that he can take power for himself? The assassin is merely a hired gun, so to whom does he answer? Such is the political intrigue that runs through the plot of Angels & Demons. Is it Commander Maximilian Richter (Stellan Skarsgård) who is head of the Swiss Guard and Vatican security? Is it Cardinal Strauss (Armin Mueller-Stahl), the Dean of the College of Cardinals and facilitator of the election? Or is it Father Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), the carmelengo and close apprentice to the recently deceased pope? Even in the midst of a serial killer on the lose and even the ticking time bomb of an atomic bomb, there is still an overall villain willing to do anything to pull the strings behind the scenes.


At the film’s climax, the carmelengo is ultimately revealed as the villain. The film’s ace up its sleeve is arguably Ewan McGregor’s performance as a young, quiet, and seemingly all too innocent priest, Father Patrick McKenna. It’s no surprise that Obi-Wan Kenobi would be a convincing spiritual good guy, but his turn as the big villain behind the scenes is one of the film’s best twists. As it turns out, he was the one who murdered the previous pope. McKenna disagreed with the pope’s stance in support of the “god particle” as evidence of divine creation. In McKenna’s mind, the scientific discovery would only discourage faith and religion. So, while plotting to cover up the murder of the pope, McKenna hires an assassin to kidnap and murder the cardinals while posing as a hero when he saves the Vatican from an atomic bomb — the god particle turned into weapon. There is certainly the theme of science versus faith running through the film, but McKenna’s political machinations in the guise of an innocent priest is a clever twist that relies heavily on Ewan McGregor’s acting.


Furthermore, what makes Angels & Demons such a thrilling experience is its protagonist. Tom Hanks has his roots in romantic comedies and drama, far from the action hero type that Harrison Ford brought to Indiana Jones. Yet, Hanks’ portrayal of a Harvard professor whose strengths lie solely in his knowledge and analytical skills rather than in his physical prowess is what makes Robert Langdon such an engaging protagonist, especially in the dire situations he finds himself in. For example, when Langdon goes to the underground Vatican archives, the power suddenly goes out. The ventilation system — designed to keep oxygen levels low in order to preserve texts and artifacts — fails. Langdon and a security guard try their best to break out of the archives, running carts of books against the glass and even shooting at it with a gun. When the guard passes out, it’s up to Langdon to think of a way out. He climbs onto a bookshelf, forcing it to collapse against the glass wall. Eventually, the glass gives and breaks, allowing Langdon and the guard to breathe. Even though Langdon isn’t someone with fighting skills or training, he manages to think of ways to save the day. Where his intellect isn’t enough, his courage and determination make up for it. When the final cardinal is about to drown in a fountain, Langdon dives into the water and tries to carry the cardinal back to the surface. But the cardinal is weighed down. Langdon goes back up, screaming for help. When it seems no one is coming, a number of civilians come through to help Langdon carry the cardinal up from the water. Langdon isn’t an action hero, but that doesn’t stop him from trying. He throws himself wholeheartedly into every challenge.


Like its nontraditional protagonist, the Robert Langdon series of films isn’t a conventional historical action-adventure franchise like Indiana Jones or National Treasure. Sure, there are still clues embedded in maps, monuments, and historical documents that lead from one set piece to the next. But within this genre shell, Angels & Demons delves into a political thriller about the inner workings of Church politics. Priests aren’t always humble nor peaceful. As Ewan McGregor’s Patrick McKenna shows, there are some who are willing to use violence to secure power, all in the name of the greater good. The Church certainly has its secrets, and its mystique makes for some great entertainment. Though it may seem that the future of the franchise is nowhere in sight, there are still aspects of it worth revisiting. Angels & Demons is available to stream on HBO Max.