Getting Down with Mr. Brown, or Umberto Eco as James Bond

With Inferno showing at the local fleapit, TAG and I decided to prep ourselves by watching the previous two films based on books by Dan Brown and featuring American symbologist Robert Langdon.

The Da Vinci Code (2006)

Inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (a book written by three guys whose names I can’t recall and aren’t fussed enough to look up – Baigent? Green? Lincoln?), or at the least having similar antecedents, this film opens with the murder of the Louvre’s curator by an albino monk. The French police call on Langdon, played by Tom Hanks, who was supposed to meet with the curator and whose expertise is called on to address certain aspects of the crime. In fact, though he doesn’t realise so at first, Langdon is a suspect. With the aid of police cryptographer Sophie (Audrey Tautou) Langdon gets out of the Louvre and evades the police, after which the two of them go on the run chasing down a series of elaborate historical clues to find the truth behind the legend of the Holy Grail. Along the way they are pursued by the police, members of the Catholic group Opus Dei, the flagellating albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany, pretty much stealing the film with his carpet munching performance), all of whom have vested interests in whether Langdon succeeds or not. It’s a bravura performance, with intriguing riddles for those with a puzzler mindset and a modicum of action set pieces as our heroes always manage to stay one step ahead of their pursuers. In the abstract it all feels slightly silly, and this is compounded by the revelations of the film’s end game, but as somebody once said of Dan Brown’s books on the TTA forums, they are the crack cocaine of plot driven fiction, or something like that. You see the flaws, but you become so caught up in what is happening that they simply don’t become a problem. Bottom line – it was an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours.

Angels & Demons (2009)

A flask of anti-matter is stolen from CERN laboratories and smuggled to the Vatican City by agents of the Illuminati, who have a long standing grudge against the papacy. At the same time there’s the election of a new Pope in the offing, and the four cardinals who are the leading contenders have been abducted by the Illuminati, who propose to execute them each in a very public and symbol ridden manner. And that, of course, is the cue for the Vatican to call in Robert Langdon, who is only too happy to help as it gets him the long desired access to the Vatican archives. And so Langdon, with the assistance of scientist Dr. Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer), the Swiss Guard and Italian police, hares round the tourist hot spots following obscure clues to the whereabouts of the Illuminati and always one step behind the cardinal killing conspirators. And of course there is also the small matter of the anti-matter blowing a Vatican City sized hole in the landscape. Central to it all is a young, idealistic priest played by Ewan McGregor, who holds the papal power until the College of Cardinals decides on a new Pope, but of course he isn’t quite what or who he appears to be, and neither is anybody else in this plot driven piece. I liked this one the best of the three films. It has a bit more to the action, with some horrific murders that bring to mind films like Seven and, while not exactly the most credible story idea ever, the whole thing with the Illuminati and anti-matter was more convincing than the plot driver of the previous film. I also learned rather a lot about the inner workings of the Catholic Church along the way, which was gratifying. The plot (crack cocaine) was compellingly convoluted, with plenty of twists and turns, unexpected betrayals and nobody quite who they appeared to be. Underlying it all there are serious questions being posed about the nature of religious faith and the sometime uncomfortable relationship it has with science, central to which is the lengths people are prepared to go to in service of each. Hanks was as believable as ever as Langdon, and the rest of the cast gave him sterling support, with the standout performance coming from McGregor, whose character embodies the end justifying means moral dilemma at the heart of the film. We also got a rather impressive explosion, which is not something to be sniffed at.

Inferno (2016)

Okay, by now you know the drill. A billionaire who thinks that mankind has become a disease endangering the planet decides that triage on a global scale is the only solution, and so develops a virus that will wipe out half the world’s population. He’s dead but his virus is still out there somewhere, and various interested parties want to find it for reasons of their own. And, you’ve guessed it; the virus is at the end of a trail that can only be discovered by the specialist skills of symbologist Robert Langdon. There’s a beautiful and intelligent young woman to help Langdon along the way, and various people are not who they seem, and at the end of it all things are pretty much back to how they were at the start. Yes, I liked this rather more than Code but at the same time it is all starting to feel a tad tired and formulaic. There’s a credible back story, the plot has the requisite twists and turns, and the question of killing half the people to save the remainder is pitched in ways that enable us to see and almost sympathise with the motives of the bad guys, even though we don’t agree. There’s some good fire fights, with the finale in the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul particularly impressive, and I was quite taken with the idea of a security firm for hire that develops a conscience when they realise exactly what agenda they’ve helped forward. On the other hand, the whole thing with symbols just seemed like something crammed into the main plot to give Langdon something to do. There was simply no real reason for the billionaire to leave such a trail; he only needed to tell his operatives where to find the virus. And that stretch for me undermined the whole thing, so central was it to the film’s core plotline. Nice to look at, with plenty of bang for your buck, and once again, an entertaining way to pass a couple of hours, but that’s pretty much all she wrote.

Anyone read the books? If so, how do the films compare?

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