After delivering one of the most tedious, murky and humourless action thrillers of all time in The Da Vinci Code, Tom Hanks and the director Ron Howard have returned with a second Dan Brown adaptation, Angels & Demons. In almost every way, this film is superior to its predecessor, but it still manages to be one of the most rambling, predictable and eye-wateringly absurd films of the year.
Set against the backdrop of a papal election in a thronging Vatican City, it features the Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) attempting to decipher a series of clues to unravel an ancient conspiracy and avert a disaster - not a far cry from The Da Vinci Code, or his recently released The Lost Symbol. When we first meet our hero, he is swimming at one of the university's pools when in walks a mystery visitor looking for Langdon's help. Before the professor has even towelled himself off, he has deciphered the code on the visitor's briefcase, commented on his haircut and guessed his mother's PIN. So begins a nearly two-and-a-half-hour-long monologue from Hanks, explaining everything from the minutiae of Vatican law to 17th-century printing practices. Like a classroom know-it-all, Langdon spends every minute he can explaining each detail of the plot as it unfolds, giving no credit to the viewer whatsoever. It's rather like listening to a football commentator on the radio explaining a match to an audience that has never heard of football, or sport, or radios.
In what seems like an impossibly short amount of time, Langdon arrives in the Vatican and learns that the four primary contenders to become the next pontiff have been kidnapped and face execution that night. As if that's not enough to keep Langdon busy, a container full of antimatter - yes, antimatter - has gone missing from the Large Hadron Collider several hundred miles away and is believed to be hidden somewhere in the city. Unless found by midnight, it will cause a reaction large enough to wipe out the Vatican and the tens of thousands of Catholics who have come to mourn the pope's passing and celebrate the anointment of his successor.
Before anyone else has a chance to finish what they are saying, Langdon tells them that the Illuminati are responsible - an ancient group who were oppressed by the church 400 years ago and have returned to take their revenge. Of the few characters that vie with Langdon for screen presence, Camerlengo Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor) is the most memorable. Unfortunately for McGregor, it will be remembered as one of the worst performances he has ever given. McKenna is not just a priest, but the pope's adopted son and the only voice of reason within the Vatican's deeply traditional group of cardinals. It's only when you are told that the character hails from Northern Ireland that you realise what his accent is all about. McGregor's performance is so strange that it's difficult to tell if he is supposed to be damaged and endearing or just slightly creepy.
There's also a female scientist, played by Ayelet Zurer, who is trying to recoup her lost antimatter - yes, antimatter. She is hugely underutilised and seems to exist simply as a foil for Langdon's ramblings. Angels & Demons may be incredibly stupid, but at least it looks good. Unlike The Da Vinci Code, the film is well lit and often quite beautiful. The action scenes may not be top notch, but they are exciting enough to keep the viewer's interest - until Langdon's next howlingly ridiculous observation, at least. The score soars along with the action and helps builds suspense well, leading towards a climax that is really rather breathtaking. Most importantly, Howard just about proves that he is still capable of making an action film - albeit one with a rubbish script.
The film's main flaw, however, is that it asks us to take it seriously.