Part of the problem with the movie version of The Da Vinci Code was that it took itself too seriously. You had these people dashing around Europe, investigating obscure clues and uncovering outrageous conspiracies, but the only person who seemed to be having any fun with it was Ian McKellen. "Tom Hanks has never seemed so dull," I wrote in my review.

Well, say what you will about Ron Howard as a director, but at least he's consistent. Angels & Demons, the Da Vinci Code sequel, is as overly serious as its predecessor, and poor Mr. Hanks -- the world's most likable man, for crying out loud! -- is still dour and intense. I get that saving the world from disaster is important business, and the characters may not have time to smile and joke and enjoy themselves. But is it too much to ask for it to be fun for the audience?

Not having read Dan Brown's Angels & Demons novel (which actually came before Da Vinci, not after), I was able to find some entertainment in the mechanics of the plot -- not knowing how the mystery would be unraveled, curious to see what the clues would mean. The screenplay, by veteran action writer David Koepp (Panic Room) and Ron Howard regular Akiva Goldsman (A Beautiful Mind), basically adheres to a limited point of view -- we don't know any more than the Hanks character, Robert Langdon, does. For viewers who already know where things are going, there may not be much pleasure in watching Langdon figure it out, unless the movie has deviated significantly from the book.
This time around, Langdon, relieved of his absurd haircut and back at Harvard University, is summoned by the Vatican after four high-ranking cardinals are kidnapped. The Vatican, in a state of high alert anyway due to the pope having just died, believes the evildoers are members of the super-secret group known as the Illuminati. The reason they believe this is that whoever abducted the cardinals left behind a piece of paper that says "ILLUMINATI" on it.

Langdon's expertise is needed because this "ILLUMINATI" symbol is written in the form of an ambigram, i.e., it reads the same right-side-up and upside-down. (Look at how Angels & Demons appears on the cover of the novel.) Allegedly, this is an ancient secret, the sudden appearance of which can ONLY mean the Illuminati have come out of hiding, because surely no one else could have figured out how to design an ambigram out of "Illuminati."

The kidnappers have also swiped a canister of anti-matter from a Vatican-funded lab in Switzerland, with the apparent goal of using it to blow up Vatican City. In the meantime, they've left a video message for the Vatican in which their language sounds normal but is actually densely packed with clues about their plans and whereabouts. Langdon deciphers these clues and, with a scientist named Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer) at his side, dashes all over Rome in an effort to thwart the evildoers. It kind of makes you wonder why the evildoers went to the trouble of hiding clues in their message, unless they wanted to be thwarted. Maybe it was a cry for help?

Assisting Langdon is Patrick McKenna (Ewan McGregor), chamberlain to the late pope and current acting head of state of Vatican City (something of a placeholder until the college of cardinals chooses a new pontiff). An orphan, Patrick is devout and humble, and unafraid of uncovering the truth, no matter what it may be. Somewhat fussier and more old-fashioned is Commander Richter (Stellan Skarsgard), the head of Vatican City's police force, who scoffs at Langdon's code-breaking and old-sculpture-interpreting.

As I said, there's a certain rote enjoyment to be had in seeing the elaborate story unfold, a basic thrill in wondering what's going to happen next. What it lacks is a human touch. Vittoria Vetra is a total blank who might as well have been played by a pile of socks for all the personality she brings. Patrick and Richter are generic types, a Sympathizer and Antagonist, respectively, whose characters never get fully fleshed out. Even Langdon -- being played by the world's most likable man, for crying out loud! -- seems like nothing more than a perturbed academic who must hastily solve riddles and save Rome. He's busy and frantic, but that is not the same as being interesting.

The film also lacks a crisis that can measure up to the one in The Da Vinci Code. That story was ultimately about the divinity of Jesus Christ, with secrets emerging that threatened to shake the Roman Catholic Church at its very foundation! Angels & Demons is about imperiled clergymen and a terrorist plot to destroy Rome -- big deals, sure, but hardly on a par with what sequel-goers are expecting. As a means of dealing with that shortcoming, Angels & Demons flirts with bigger issues, including science vs. religion, and briefly claims that the anti-matter relates to "the creation of life." But this is merely bluster, an effort to make us think the film is deeper than it is. It's ultimately just a 24-style murder-and-mayhem thriller -- which is a fine thing to be. Why take it so seriously, though?