Columbia Pictures wasn’t in any big hurry to screen The Da Vinci Code for critics. The film didn’t even make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival until the middle of last week, a mere couple of days before its massive worldwide opening. Mixed review from audiences at Cannes fueled speculation that Columbia didn’t want bad press leaking out before the opening, but the simple fact of the matter is that The Da Vinci Code is this summer’s guaranteed box office champion. Who needs publicity when you’re adapting one of the hottest books ever published? If everyone who picked up the novel (some 40 million people and counting) comes to the theater to buy a ticket, you’ve got a certified blockbuster. Add in all the people too lazy to actually sit down and read a book, and you’ve got one of the biggest films in box office history. So who needs reviews? Clearly not the audience for The Da Vinci Code. Here’s one anyway.
Despite all the controversy, Dan Brown’s mega-selling novel isn’t particularly clever or exceptionally original. Any criticism leveled at the film can, more or less, be traced back to the source material. Fans will natter about what made it onto the movie screen and what didn’t. Newcomers will scratch their heads at the concept of sacred feminine symbolism as it relates to one of the Italian Renaissance’s most prolific polymaths. And Dan Brown will continue to roll around in his money-filled swimming pool.
Tom Hanks stars as Brown’s hero, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon. While “Harvard symbologist” doesn’t pack quite the excitement value of, say, “international superspy,” it works just fine in the context of this story. While in Paris signing copies of his new book, Langdon is asked by the local police to look into the murder of a curator at the famed Louvre Museum. The investigation leads Langdon, in a roundabout way, on a globe-hopping treasure hunt for nothing less than the Holy Grail.
Like the book, The Da Vinci Code is little more than a brainy treasure hunt with Langdon deciphering one preposterously complex clue, only to travel to another location for yet another preposterously complex clue, which leads to ... well, you know the drill. It’s a little like watching someone work out the New York Times crossword puzzle--with the addition of a murderous monk who will kill you if you get one of the answers wrong.
As summertime thrillers go, The Da Vinci Code works just fine. The tension mounts well, the budget shows up on screen and the cast seems appropriate. Audrey Tautou (Amélie) plays Hanks’ doe-eyed sidekick. Ian McKellen (The X-Men) adds some color as a flamboyant history expert. Paul Bettany (A Beautiful Mind) is properly menacing as that murderous monk. Jean Reno (The Pink Panther) shows up as--what else?--a French cop. (I swear, if I ever go to Paris and meet a cop who is not Jean Reno, I’m gonna be sorely disappointed.) And, for a guy whose job it is to stare at works of art and look thoughtful, Hanks manages to generate some moderate charisma.
As expected, the settings are quite pretty, offering us lots of classy views of European art and architecture. Ron Howard, often a mediocre director (I offer How the Grinch Stole Christmas as Exhibit A), directs with a bit more effort than he’s shown in the past. Some critics have noted that this Da Vinci is a dark and often glum journey. Frankly, I appreciate the fact that Howard was able to add a little grit to the proceedings.
As in Brown’s original, the story doesn’t progress so much as move from one set piece to the next. The “big secret” that everyone in the film is knocking each other off to either expose or keep hidden is pretty old hat. Everyone knows the speculative religious theory at the heart of it all, and not even the Pope himself is worked up enough to consider condemning the film. Still, the film builds a convincing argument for conspiracy and sticks with it through to the end. My only major complaint is a particularly unmotivated about-face by one major character that seems even more unrealistic on screen than in the book. Even so, the script by Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind, Batman & Robin) strips away many of Brown’s gabbier passages in favor of some good, old-fashioned running, shooting and narrowly escaping.
If you like your biblical history with a bit more action, rent Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you like your summertime blockbusters infused with all the intellectual thrill of the Daily Word Jumble, then The Da Vinci Code has got you covered.
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