When a curator at the Louvre is murdered trying to protect dark secrets from an albino assassin (Paul Bettany), the French police (led by Jean Reno) locate the man's last known contact, symbologist professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), to bring him in for questioning. Overwhelmed by the breadth of the codes and symbols left behind by the dead man, Langdon is given clarity by Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), the curator's granddaughter, who fears the true motivations of the police. Escaping potential custody, Langdon and Neveu begin a dangerous search to unearth the secret the curator was protecting, finding treacherous religious figures (Alfred Molina), untrustworthy associates, and their own skepticism halting their progress at every turn.
In the last few weeks, "for the twelve of you who haven't read the book" was the common joke trailing any piece of "Da Vinci Code" plot description or trivia. Well, I'm one of those twelve. I'm the guy who didn't go anywhere near Dan Brown's opus as it stormed the best seller charts and turned a seemingly charming beach read into a national event.
Director Ron Howard is the filmmaker with the chutzpah to try and bring the intricate Langdon saga to the big screen, and the end result is an entertaining if overstuffed motion picture. Howard directs the tale of intrigue and dynamic history lessons with a decided lack of panache. Perhaps the filmmaker was wary of spinning the film in ways that would upset the hardcore fans of the book, but at its worst, "Da Vinci" can be a dreary, unresponsive experience. It's never boring, but the picture is readily aware of not tipping the canoe over and drowning the core appeal of the story with fancy directorial flourishes.
Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman ("A Beautiful Mind," but also "Batman & Robin") keeps a very close eye on Brown's plot, and there's a lot to consider when shaving this exhaustive, participatory novel down to a cushy 150-minute long moviegoing experience. With Opus Dei, Knights of Templar, Priorys of Sion, and Leonardo himself, Goldsman deserves some credit for maintaining a strict forward momentum to the story, even if he has to achieve it through hammy and often obvious dialog. Fans of the book will undoubtedly have a richer understanding of the complex nature of Langdon's quest, but casual viewers should be able to grab hold of the details as well. "Da Vinci" may be clumsy at times, but it gets the job done satisfactorily.
As much as Sony would like people to believe this picture is a thrill-a-minute, hair-raising, blood-pumping thriller, the truth is "Da Vinci" is almost all exposition and problem solving. Howard attempts to fluff up the proceedings by sprinkling in a car chase and some standoffs, but those moments feel out of place in a story that embraces the art of calm deduction to save the day. I can't blame Howard for trying to spice up the film with dollops of action, but the gold of "Da Vinci" is watching the characters enthusiastically spark to clues and ideas, not globetrot and dodge bullets. Any potential viewers must understand that "Da Vinci" is two and a half hours of characters undemonstratively explaining historical events (with some Howard recreations to help paint the picture) and spitballing solutions to codes; it is not a high-flying Parisian "Indian Jones."
Even with a controversial haircut, Tom Hanks does a convincing job in the lead role of Langdon. It's surprisingly understated work, with Hanks electing to bear silent witness to the events surrounding the title dilemma and not charging full steam ahead as a blowhard hero. Armed with brains and claustrophobia issues, Langdon uses his intellect and remarkable education to unravel mysteries, and Hanks plays the confidence of historical expertise impressively and commandingly.
Equally as fun is Ian McKellen, who pops up in the film's second half as Langdon's English colleague, armed with knowledge on the clues that explore the more weighty (and likely inflammatory) theological discussions of the film. McKellen lightens up the picture with his enthusiastic delivery, and he's one of the few in the film who can transcend Goldman's melodrama and make the role twinkle.
While trying to juggle at least three endings, Howard eventually picks an energetically respectful tone, assisted by Hans Zimmer's lifting score, giving the film a gorgeously graceful exit. "Da Vinci Code" might not be the type of knock down, drag out summer entertainment audiences are used to, but it has subtle appeal for the especially patient. It's a long trip around religious theories and elaborate puzzles, but it's a trip worth taking for some slow-burn decoding delights.
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