You don't need to have sat through The Da Vinci Code to follow the plot of Angels and Demons: In terms of pure story, the two movies have absolutely nothing to do with each other. But as was the case with Da Vinci, you might want to bring some reading material and a flashlight to the theater - you know, to help pass the time.
Angels and Demons isn't as talky and enervating as The Da Vinci Code. Despite the first movie's phenomenal box-office gross, director Ron Howard still heeded the advice of people who complained that it was too long, too slow and convoluted and that Tom Hanks' poofy hairstyle made him look ridiculous.
The new film, which is technically a prequel to Da Vinci but could also pass for a two-hour episode of 24, rarely stands still long enough for anyone to deliver a monologue. Even Jack Bauer would have trouble keeping up with symbologist Robert Langdon as he races around Rome, trying to foil the centuries-old sect known as the Illuminati which plans to blow up the Vatican with a bomb made of anti-matter.
Why are the pro-science Illuminati so pissed off? Because they were driven underground in the 17th century by the Catholic Church and want a little payback. (Unpaid debts never go away; they just fester and collect interest.) Why have they chosen this particular moment to strike back? Because the pope has just croaked, and the church is in the process of electing his replacement.
Even worse, someone within the Vatican appears to be conspiring with the Illuminati. But who is it? The imperious captain (Stellan Skarsgard) of the Swiss Guard? The naive young priest (Ewan McGregor) who was the pope's disciple? The power-hungry cardinal (Armin Mueller-Stahl) who always insists that rules be followed?
Screenwriters David Koepp and Akiva Goldsman dole out more red herrings than a fishmonger would, while Hanks and his requisite female sidekick (an Italian scientist played by the lovely Ayelet Zurer) pore over ancient texts and run from one old statute to another trying to decipher a complex series of clues.
Howard keeps the pace furious, Hanks makes like James Bond, and composer Hans Zimmer whips the demonic-sounding choral score into a deafening frenzy that tricks you into believing the movie is somewhat exciting. You also get a gigantic explosion - surely one of the biggest ever to grace a film - an occasional stray eyeball, enough gore to skirt the edges of that PG-13 rating and lots of shots of priests in blood-red cloaks gathered in ominous groups, looking as if they had just wandered off the set of the masked orgy scene from Eyes Wide Shut.
The result is dizzying enough to make you think you're entertained, although the moment you stop to think about Angels and Demons for even a second, the movie becomes ridiculous and preposterous enough to be laughed off the screen. A better approach might be to follow the cue of Hanks, who sticks to the don't-ask-questions-and- do-as-you're-told school of acting, and just go with the ride. So what if the outcome is so lame that it isn't even worthy of a decent controversy, the way The Da Vinci Code was? This is a summer movie, you know? The fall will be here soon enough.