Ron Howard and Tom Hanks have been nothing if not vocal, these past few weeks, about the manner in which Vatican officials were less than helpful during the filming of Angels & Demons, the sequel to 2006's The Da Vinci Code, blocking access to key locations and generally making an episcopal nuisance of themselves. The Catholic Church can and have been accused of many things, but having endured Angels & Demons, I can report that their judgement on this matter at least is all but unimpeachable. In the future, indeed, I would encourage them to go further still. The College of Bishops should be stationed on rooftops with rifles and prepared to take down anybody who even thinks of greenlighting another Dan Brown adaptation. Altar boys could be orchestrated into a network of saboteurs, and sent out to cut the power of any cinema showing the film. And could not Pope Benedict be persuaded to revive the rack, in order to make all those involved in the production of this series recant their myriad mortal sins?
Let's start with Brown himself, the source of so much that is wrong with the film. Angels & Demons' opening ten minutes offer, in no particular order, the following splurge of incident: the death of an incumbent Pope, the murder of a priest inside the Large Hadron Collider, followed by the theft of antimatter by a group calling themselves the Illuminati, who then announce their plans to set off an explosion in St. Peter's Square. The general air of turmoil is compounded by the kidnap of a further four priests who - lawksalordy - just so happen to be the leading candidates in the race for the papacy. I'd argue no man could make sense of this nonsense, but Tom Hanks's Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon is back to give it a go. Hanks has, thankfully, been shorn of the footballer's mullet he sported in the first film; gone, too, is his erstwhile sidekick Audrey Tautou, and her charming way of mangling the English language. In comes the remarkably dull Ayelet Zurer as the - it says here - "beautiful and enigmatic Italian scientist" Dr. Vittoria Vetra.
Together, this pair run around between statues and murals in the fashion established by Jerry Bruckheimer's brainlessly enjoyable National Treasure franchise, yet second time out, it's the influence of another Bruckheimer franchise that appears to hold the greatest sway. The script is clogged with what I can only call CSI dialogue, in which supposedly intelligent, highly trained professionals have to explain in painstaking detail to one another (and thereby to us) technical terminology of which the other party would surely be well aware. (In reality, every line in the typical CSI episode would be greeted with an exasperated "yes, but I know that.") Yet the average hour of CSI would also make room for character development, mordant wit, pauses for thought, Government-sponsored crime-doesn't-pay propaganda, and - and here's where it differs most from the Browniverse - science that rings true. Angels & Demons, by contrast, dashes ever onwards in a relentless, diarrhoeic flow of exposition.
There's no stopping it - one priest gabbles about the crucifixion of the first Pope even as the mark of a branding iron sizzles on his chest - and no digesting it; what we're left with are actors wearing the facial expression of trapped wind sufferers, playing characters we're not given time to care about, solving puzzles we couldn't give a toss about. The first film at least allowed actors of the calibre of Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina and Paul Bettany to chew the scenery; maybe it's the recession, but this time, the cast stretches only to cheaper Europeans, attempting sinister in a variety of accents. Sweden's Stellan Skarsgard is the grumpy head of Vatican police; Dane Nikolaj Lie Kaas offers lightweight glowering as a criminal mastermind who apparently bases all his decisions on which direction 16th century statues are pointing. On the side of the angels, we find Armin Mueller-Stahl as the exceptionally non-committal Cardinal Strauss, sighing "if it's God's will, it may as well be done" - Brown can't even be bothered to write his men of faith with any conviction - and, wait for it folks, Ewan McGregor as the Camerlengo, Patrick McKenna, an Ulsterman whose accent thickens noticeably at moments of crisis ("Der's been a develoipment!").
For the most part, McGregor manages to cloak his now-standard look of a man desperate to collect his paycheque, fill up his motorbike, and ride the furthest imaginable distance from the film he's signed up to appear in; and yet there can be no preparing the viewer for his participation in a final reel so ludicrous, nay risible - it involves McKenna literally parachuting himself into the vacant papacy - it can only be interpreted as an unholy hoax, designed to expose the sheeplike gullibility of summer-season cinemagoers. Nothing else could explain Hanks's continued participation in a franchise so painfully po-faced and humourless, nor Howard's sudden desire, so soon after the considered Frost/Nixon, to churn out a film so essentially sloppy in its storytelling, so flat-out contemptuous of its audience. Are they just goofing off? If so, the joke's on us. For make no mistake: Angels & Demons isn't guilty-pleasure bad. It's not amusingly bad. It's not even so-bad-it's-good bad. It's worse-than-The-Da-Vinci-Code- bad. It's they're-taking-the-piss bad. It's don't-give-them-your-money bad. Altar boys of the world: you know what to do.