First, Columbia Pictures decreed that no critic would see the movie until the last possible nanosecond, to better preserve its mysteries and wonders. Then, in a highly unusual move, they decided that the critics should be forbidden from seeing the film together; thus, they nationally arranged for daily newspaper reviewers in each city to see the picture one day earlier than weekly newspaper scribes. It’s always possible that all of this busybody activity as well as the attempts to shroud the final product in secrecy were carefully orchestrated to distract everyone from the fact that the film version of The Da Vinci Code is merely... OK. It’s no instant classic, it won’t sweep next year’s Academy Awards, and it won’t make its way to the upper echelons of the all-time top-grossing films list. Conversely, it’s also not a turkey for the ages -- it won’t draw instant titters at the mere mention of its name like, say, Gigli or Battlefield Earth or The Bonfire of the Vanities. Like Bonfire, however, I suspect that it will be judged far more harshly by those who read the book than those who didn’t. After all, on its own cinematic terms, it’s a moderately entertaining ride, sort of like the Nicolas Cage hit National Treasure only done with more style and a more respectable cast. Steered by his Apollo 13 director Ron Howard, Tom Hanks plays the central role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist whose book-signing stint in Paris is cut short when he’s summoned to the Louvre to hopefully shed light on the strange circumstances surrounding the murder of an elderly curator. What Langdon doesn’t initially know is that the detective on the case, the gruff Bezu Fache (French national treasure Jean Reno), is convinced that he’s the killer. With a police cryptologist named Sophie Neveu (Amelie’s Audrey Tautou) as his only ally, Langdon evades capture and begins a jaunt across France and, later, England in an attempt to solve an ancient mystery that, if revealed, could potentially spell the end of Christianity as we know it. Seeking guidance in their quest, Langdon and Sophie turn to British scholar Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen, easily earning MVP honors) to fill in the missing pieces; all the while, they’re being pursued by the homicidal monk Silas (Paul Bettany), the designated hatchet man employed by the corrupt cabal lurking within the bowels of the Catholic Church. However tantalizingly this might have all played out on the page, up on the screen it simply comes off as one more familiar Hollywood thriller. Yet where The Da Vinci Code succeeds is, as expected, within the arena of religious debate. Whatever one thinks of the worldwide protests of offended Christians (the anger is understandable, though true believers must know that their religion will far outlive a perceived potboiler that will probably go the way of dinosaurs and Rubik’s Cubes) or Dan Brown’s research and subsequent conclusions, there’s no denying that the movie’s most gripping scenes involve the laying out of the conspiracy theories. The manner in which Langdon figures out riddles is almost laughable -- he cracks ancient codes in such record time that I half-expected him to pull out and solve a few Sudoku puzzles while he’s at it -- yet the resultant discussions, especially when McKellen’s Teabing is the one doing the talking, are heady and fascinating.
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