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YOU THOUGHT ‘MISSION IMPOSSIBLE' WAS A TURKEY? WAIT TILL YOU SEE ‘DA VINCI'!


THE DA VINCI CODE


By TODD McCARTHY
Variety, 5/17/06

A pulpy page-turner in its original incarnation as a huge international bestseller has become a stodgy, grim thing in the exceedingly literal-minded film version of "The Da Vinci Code."

Tackling head-on novelist Dan Brown's controversy-stirring thriller hinging on a subversively revisionist view of Jesus Christ's life, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman have conspired to drain any sense of fun out of the melodrama, leaving expectant audiences with an oppressively talky film that isn't exactly dull, but comes as close to it as one could imagine with such provocative material; result is perhaps the best thing the project's critics could have hoped for. Enormous public anticipation worldwide will result in explosive B.O. at the start in near-simultaneous release in most international territories, beginning May 17 in some countries -- day-and-date with the official Cannes opening-night preem -- and May 19 in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Sitting through all the verbose explanations and speculations about symbols, codes, secret cults, religious history and covert messages in art, it is impossible to believe that, had the novel never existed, such a script would ever have been considered by a Hollywood studio. It's esoteric, heady stuff, made compelling only by the fact that what it's proposing undermines the fundamental tenants of Christianity, especially Roman Catholicism, and, by extension, Western Civilization for the past 2,000 years.

The irony in the film's inadequacy is that the novel was widely found to be so cinematic. Although pretty dismal as prose, the tome fairly rips along, courtesy of a strong story hook, very short chapters that seem like movie scenes, constant movement by the principal characters in a series of conveyances, periodic eruptions of violent action and a compressed 24-hour time frame.

The appearance of its easy adaptability may have been deceptive, however, as what went down easily on the page becomes laborious onscreen, even with the huge visual plus of fabulous French and English locations, fine actors and the ability to scrutinize works of Da Vinci in detail.

What one is left with is high-minded lurid material sucked dry by a desperately solemn approach. Some nifty scene-setting, with strong images amplifying a Paris lecture delivered by Harvard symbology professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) intercut with the Louvre murder of curator Sauniere by albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany), spurs hope that Howard might be on track to find a visual way to communicate the book's content.

But from the first one-on-one scene between Robert and French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou, occasionally hard to understand), in which she convinces him that cop Bezu Fache (Jean Reno) intends to hold him for the murder, the temperature level drops, and continues to do so as the pair goes on the run to stay one step ahead of Fache while using their complementary specialties to decipher the meaning of the cryptic messages Sauniere scrawled on his body in his own blood before he died.

Part of the quick deflation is due to a palpable lack of chemistry between Hanks and Tautou, an odd thing in itself given their genial accessibility in many previous roles. Howard, normally a generous director of actors, makes them both look stiff, pasty and inexpressive in material that provides them little opportunity to express basic human nature; unlike in the book, they are never allowed to even suggest their fatigue after a full night and day of non-stop running, nor to say anything that doesn't relate directly to narrative forward movement. It's a film so overloaded with plot that there's no room for anything else, from emotion to stylistic grace notes.

The pursuit of a man and a woman barely known to one another was a favorite premise of Alfred Hitchcock, and one need only think of the mileage the director got out of such a set-up in films from "The 39 Steps" to "North by Northwest" to realize some of the missed opportunities here.

Temporary relief comes, an hour in, with the arrival of Ian McKellen as Sir Leigh Teabing, an immensely wealthy Holy Grail fanatic to whom it falls to explain, in unavoidably fascinating monologues, the alternate history the story advances. It is Teabing's thesis that the early Church, beginning with the Emperor Constantine, suppressed the feminine aspects of religion both stemming from pagan times as well as from the prominent role in spreading the faith he insists was played by Mary Magdalene, a role underlined by a close look at Da Vinci's celebrated "The Last Supper."

More than that, however, Teabing insists that Mary Magdalene, far from having been a prostitute, was actually Jesus' wife and that they had a daughter whose bloodline has persisted. McKellen seems to relish every moment and line, which can scarcely be said of the other thesps.

Given the widespread readership the book has enjoyed and the howls of protest from Christian entities beginning with the Vatican, it is hardly spoiling things to point out that the baddies here are members of the strict Catholic sect Opus Dei, including Silas and Alfred Molina's Bishop Aringarosa, defenders of doctrine determined to eliminate the threat to the established order posed by the so-called Priory of Sion, an organization secretly holding the "knowledge" that could cripple the church.

Even after the action moves from France to England, there's still a long way to go, and the final dramatic revelations, however mind-boggling from a content p.o.v., come off as particularly flat.

The darkly burnished stylings cinematographer Salvatore Totino brought to Howard's previous two films, "The Missing" and "Cinderella Man," prove rather less seductive in the largely nocturnal realms of "The Da Vinci Code." Hans Zimmer's ever-present score is at times dramatic to the point of over-insistence.

 

THE DA VINCI CODE

By KIRK HONEYCUTT
The Hollywood Reporter, 5/17/06

For those who hate Dan Brown's best-selling symbology thriller "The Da Vinci Code," the eagerly awaited and much-hyped movie version beautifully exposes all its flaws and nightmares of logic. For those who love the book's page-turning intensity, the movie version heightens Brown's mischievous interweaving of genre action, historical facts and utter fictions. In other words, for those who bear witness to the film "The Da Vinci Code," what you see depends on what you believe. Kinda like religion itself.

Strictly as a movie and ignoring the current swirl of controversy no amount of studio money could ever buy, the Ron Howard-directed film features one of Tom Hanks' more remote, even wooden performances in a role that admittedly demands all the wrong sorts of things from a thriller protagonist; an only slightly more animated performance from his French co-star, Audrey Tautou; and polished Hollywood production values where camera cranes sweep viewers up to God-like points of view and famous locations and deliciously sinister interiors heighten tension where the movie threatens to turn into a historical treatise. The movie really only catches fire after an hour, when Ian McKellen hobbles on the scene as the story's Sphinx-like Sir Leigh Teabing. Here is the one actor having fun with his role and playing a character rather than a piece to a puzzle.

True believers and those who want to understand what all the fuss is about will jam cinemas worldwide in the coming weeks in sufficient numbers so as to fulfill probably even the most optimistic projections of Sony execs.

But the movie is so drenched in dialogue musing over arcane mythological and historical lore and scenes grow so static that even camera movement can't disguise the dramatic inertia. Such sins could cut into those rosy projections.

For those who vacationed on Mars for the past few years, "The Da Vinci Code" is the second of Brown's thrillers starring Harvard professor of iconography and religious art Robert Langdon (Hanks). The books seek to put contemporary ticking bombs into dusty historical disputes. In this one, the murder of a highly respected curator in the Louvre in Paris, where Langdon fortuitously happens to be while on a speaking engagement, embroils the professor in a race against time to locate nothing less than the Holy Grail.

His companion is police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou), and his seeming nemesis is bulldog police captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno, largely wasted), who for no plausible reason believes Langdon to be the killer. But other potential villains loom: Jet-setting Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina), from the ultraconservative Opus Dei branch of Catholicism, and Silas, an albino-monk assassin (Paul Bettany).

The plot is driven not by its characters but by solutions to puzzles, the breaking of codes, interpreting covert references in works of art and a dazzling display of historical knowledge, all of which works terrifically in the novel but puts the brakes to all screen action. Hanks' character is far too reactive and contemplative for a movie action hero, and the cliched nature of those drifting in and out of his orbit hits home with jolting simplicity.

Screen adapter Akiva Goldsman has definitely punched up Brown's third act. He has actually improved on the novel -- at least for those who buy in to the historical controversy that Jesus left behind a royal French bloodline -- by giving the story a broader, more fulfilling payoff than the novel. If one doesn't buy into that controversy, then the story becomes just that much more forced and corrupt. (The final revelation produced a few titters in the first press audience to see the film.)

Howard and Goldsman can't do much, though, with mostly colorless characters designed around idiosyncrasies and weird scholarly talents -- sort of academic X-Men -- rather than flesh-and-blood personalities. No chemistry exists between the hero and heroine, and motivation remains a troubling sore point. Why does the innocent professor flee? Why is Sophie so eager to help? Why is anyone doing what he does when so many characters and subplots turn into red herrings?

One questionable "cinematic" addition to the film are flashbacks to ancient biblical and medieval historical tableaus in the Holy Land and Europe that illustrate Prof. Langdon's continuous lectures on religious history. These look as if some prankster spliced scenes from last year's "Kingdom of Heaven" into the film as a bad joke.

Howard proves a smart choice as a director because his middlebrow tastes inspire him to go for broad strokes and forget making any real sense of these logic-busters. But why did he allow such a solid, attractive cast to turn in such stiff, unappealing performances?

Salvatore Totino's glistening cinematography, Allan Cameron's assured production design and Hans Zimmer's driving score are definitely pluses. Yet "Da Vinci" never rises to the level of a guilty pleasure. Too much guilt. Not enough pleasure.