Dan Brown is a mystery to me. His books appear to be written by a (vending) machine. His characters possess all the idiosyncrasies of spoons. His understanding of Catholicism would look dim-witted for a mollusc. And yet he sells in the millions. There’s an existential hunger for his bullshit. Even though the average Dan Brown novel only has four component parts (1) an obscene amount of exposition, 2) a kinky hit-man, 3) Professor Robert Langdon, 4) a tourist-friendly setting) he’s held up as king of thrillers just for throwing in the odd twist. The latest movie to come from a Dan Brown novel (Angels & Demons) is so silly even the ampersand looks embarrassed.
It begins with some anti-matter being stolen from the European Organisation for Nuclear Research in Geneva. Then four cardinals are kidnapped from the Vatican. Since the poor dumb schmucks in Italy and Switzerland can’t be expected to crack the case, it’s down to Dan Brown regular Professor Robert Langdon to solve it. Langdon is contacted by the Vatican because he knows about symbology (surprisingly, Dan Brown did not make this discipline up). When the cardinals were kidnapped, the kidnappers left behind an ambigram (i.e. a word that can be read the same upside down as normal). The church bods already know what the ambigram says, but they need Langdon to tell them what it means. He doesn’t speak Italian or Latin, but goddamn it!, he’s played by Tom Hanks.
You need a big star in a piece of crap like this. Without Hanks – with, say, Rutger Hauer playing Langdon – the whole enterprise would head straight to DVD. Hanks – banking on the credibility he earned playing gay men and messianic idiots – runs around Rome in a good suit, looking serious. His job is to act as a sort of hysterical, conspiracy-minded tour-guide; explaining how every artwork in Christendom is really a cryptogram leading to a kinky hidden truth. With his stout head and financial investor’s expression, Hanks nearly manages to avoid the script’s explaining-this-to-a-six-year-old tone. But, as ever with Dan Brown, the sheer weight of exposition crushes any human interaction. Langdon is a character the way the .44 Magnum is a character in Dirty Harry; he exists to be point at people and to get information out of them, but you can’t picture him sunbathing.
Of the plot, the only sensible thing to say is: WTF? “Implausible” isn’t even a word in Dan Brown’s vocabulary. It vanished along with “blasphemous” and “asinine twaddle”. We’re asked to believe not only that one man could kidnap four cardinals from the Vatican, but that he could also stick ’em in the back of a truck and drive around Rome, disembowelling them at regular intervals. This man’s motivations are apparently faith-based, much the same way Dan Brown’s motivations are based on faith, that no-one will examine his plots too closely. I’m guessing it was this same supremely dexterous killer who broke into the CERN facility in Geneva and pulled out a priest’s eyeball without anyone noticing. Why he lets Professor Robert Langdon live at several key moments is also left in the air. Though, considering the movie’s climax rests on a priest parachuting out of an exploding helicopter, I probably shouldn’t worry overly about the impracticalities of offing a member of the clergy inside the Large Hadron Collider, or why anyone would spare Tom Hanks.
If there is something to be learned from reading Dan Brown, God help us. The man writes pot-boilers that make Michael Crichton look like Umberto Eco. People used to complain about the writing in Jurassic Park, but at least Jurassic Park had dinosaurs. In Dan Brown, the story is like reading a Lonely Planet entry written by Robert Ludlum; famous sites are visited, lurid mysteries unveiled… the holiday ends in a shoot-out, but you’re no wiser than when it began. I’m guessing people respond to these books because they have nice pictures on the cover. Angels & Demons is the sort of thriller that makes you sympathise with the last seven words of Christ.