Angels & Demons opens Friday throughout the Triangle

I’m of two minds about using the Catholic Church and its shadowy tenets as entertainment punching bags, first in the film adaptation of Dan Brown’s runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code, and now in its follow-up, Angels & Demons. On one hand, there is something discomfiting about the appropriation of religious beliefs held by billions around the globe as a bogeyman for mere pop entertainment.

However, the declaration “Hey, it’s only a movie!” has been rightly used to excuse a plethora of provocative films throughout cinema’s history. And, as long as the Catholic Church remains a powerful world influence adhering to clandestineand medievaltraditions and doctrinaire, reactionary teachings, it must expect to be fodder for political activists, conspiratorial muckrakers and sensationalistic fiction writers.

Angels & Demons is the latest such byproduct, in which Brown parlays the longstanding feud between religion and science as the basis for a pedantic, winding murder mystery. Although Brown’s book is actually a prequel to Da Vinci Code, director Ron Howard wisely post-dates the narrative into a sequel. Tom Hanks returns as symbologist Robert Langdon, again called upon to uncover the dastardly plans of another occult society. This time, the suspect is the ambigram-prone Illuminati, an Enlightenment-era association purportedly looking to punish the Church for its past denunciation of science by destroying Vatican City and the College of Cardinals using a canister of stolen antimatter.

The bulk of the film, however, finds Langdon spouting one dollop of theological mumbo-jumbo after another, each prompting another leg in what becomes an extended travelogue through the streets of Rome and the Universal Studios back lot. No staircase, corridor or secret passageway goes unexplored as Langdon tries to stop a series of related, Se7en-esque theme slayings against kidnapped members of the, er, Preferiti, after the Pope’s death and on the eve of the ensuing papal conclave. Going along for the ride are a comely Italian scientist (Ayelet Zurer), an irascible Vatican police commander (Skellan Skarsgård) and Patrick McKenna, the Holy See Camerlengo (Ewan McGregor, an actor now permanently derailed from the track that once led toward headlining these sorts of blockbusters).

The existence of this sequel comes in the face of a first installment that made money despite underperforming all expectations. Fans and critics complained and Howard listened, righting many of the wrongs that plagued his languid 2006 effort. Angels & Demons moves at a brisker pace, even if it’s nearly 140 minutes long, and is not as slavishly devoted to its literary source. And, thankfully, Hanks has a much better hairstyle. But, there’s little difference between this and the claptrap of National Treasure.

Howard is a capable director, but he anchors himself in too safe a harbor with a workmanlike, formulaic script co-written by usual suspects Akiva Goldsman and David Koepp. When McKenna barges into the conclave and pleas for détente between religion and science, it sounds like a speech lifted from the end of Rocky 4. Between belabored goose chases, the depth of the screenplay’s “intrigue” extends only to guessing which characters will turn out to be good and evil. Not so much spoiler alert as simple-minded-plot-device alert: They will be exactly the opposite of how they initially seem.

If Hanks’ career seems to emulate Jimmy Stewart’s, then this is another furrowed-brow chapter in his transition from screwball-comedy beginnings into the more stolid but no less productive Alfred Hitchcock-Anthony Mann phase. Let’s hope for more films like Saving Private Ryan and Apollo 13 in Hanks’ future. Otherwise, we might have to settle for walk-on poetry readings on late-night talk shows sooner than we thought.