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'The Da Vinci Code' Movie Review: Tom Hanks & Audrey Tautou Help to Save Absurd Thriller

The Da Vinci Code by Ron HowardParis, middle of the night. An old man is walking alone in a darkened gallery in the Louvre. He approaches a painting. Another man – the evil twin of Rutger Hauer's Blade Runner robot – shows up. Hauer's twin demands to know The Secret. The old man refuses to tell him. For his uncooperativeness, he gets a bullet in the stomach.

I could swear I saw the old man get shot in the head, but despite the killer's Dirty Harry-esque determination, his aim clearly left a lot to be desired. Or perhaps the gods interfered. In any case, the dying old man is granted enough time to use his own blood to draw symbols and anagrams on his body, on the floor, and on the wall nearby. The Mystery begins. Yes, capital “M.”

Nope, I'm not referring to the mysteries surrounding the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Templar Knights, the Holy Grail as a symbolic representation of the Holy Vagina, or Jesus' divinity or lack thereof. These are only theological stuffing used as an excuse to propel the narrative of a mindless thriller.

Instead, I'm talking about nitty-gritty stuff like plot holes and illogical storytelling: What in God's name (pun intended) was the old man doing in a darkened gallery in the Louvre in the middle of the night? Why did his killer let him live long enough to spread those bloody clues all over the place? And why didn't the old man simply write down the identity of his killer (and those behind him), instead of coming up with anagrams that only someone possessing a Beautiful Mind like Tom Hanks' symbologist Robert Langdon could decipher? (It's not as if the conspirators would be willing to reveal The Secret to the police or to the French FBI, since the bad guys' sole purpose is to keep The Secret secret. See synopsis.)

The rollercoaster ride known as The Da Vinci Code takes off from this absurd foundation. True enough, the film never soars to the heavens but it never comes crashing down, either, even though disbelief must remain suspended for nearly two and a half hours.

There are narrow escapes of the kind you'd find in comic strips (note: in these days of global warming and skyrocketing gas prices, one such escape must be commended for advertising fuel-efficient vehicles), plenty of deus ex machina resolutions that reveal an appalling laziness on the part of either the screenwriter or the book author (or both), and lots of dime-store philosophizing that titillate without actually challenging anyone's core beliefs. (For instance, the one individual who believes that The Secret will liberate the world from the evils of religious dogma turns out to be a psychopath - and a naïve and poorly informed one at that.)

Yet, its many flaws notwithstanding, director Ron Howard and screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's adaptation of Dan Brown's novel offers what Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest offered 47 years ago: A twist-filled thrill ride that, like its equally absurd predecessor, never ceases to be intriguing.

Perhaps it helps to watch The Da Vinci Code with very low expectations. First of all, I must admit that since I've never read Dan Brown's book I had very little knowledge of the plotline before getting into the theater. Additionally, the “most anticipated movie of the year” has been panned by critics at the Cannes Film Festival; it is a big-studio flick based on a sensational bestseller (always a bad sign as far as I'm concerned); it reunites the guilty parties (Howard & Goldsman) behind A Beautiful Mind, one of the worst movies ever to win a best picture Academy Award; and it stars Tom Hanks, an actor who almost invariably picks the phoniest of vehicles to showcase his remarkable talent. Perhaps because of those low expectations and the lack of any preconceived notion of what the film should be like, I was in for a pleasant – if hardly overwhelming – surprise.

The Da Vinci Code didn't let Tom Hanks down, either. It's almost as preposterous as Forrest Gump, while providing the always-reliable actor with a few moments of heavy-breathing acting. (Not sex; his character suffers from claustrophobia.) Co-star Audrey Tautou looks lovely, and that's most of what she's required to do – but then again, she does loveliness to perfection.

The thriller's top acting honors, however, go to supporting players Paul Bettany and Ian McKellen. Bettany is unrecognizable as an albino mad monk (the aforementioned Rutger Hauer twin), a creepy killing machine who is as obedient to a terrorist cell within the ultra-conservative Catholic sect Opus Dei as a lobotomized dog is to his master. McKellen, for his part, has a grand old time playing a historian who knows a lot about Christian myth (but little about historical facts) while also realizing that “a lot” is not quite enough. (Peter Cushing would have been ideal as the scheming Bishop Aringarosa, but that role went to Alfred Molina.)

The Da Vinci Code offers few real surprises – if you're not in on The Secret after the first 15 or 20 minutes, then I'd venture to say you've never watched a movie before in your life. Even so, it probably helps to be familiar with some of the events and religious societies discussed in the film, for the myriad people, codes, sects, tombs, and cathedrals can get more than a tad confusing to the uninitiated. Even though I was familiar with some of the tales after having read (most of) Umberto Eco's dreary Foucault's Pendulum – another Templar Knights mystery, but one with loftier philosophical pretensions – there were times in The Da Vinci Code when I couldn't figure out who was doing what to whom, or why.

Still, being unable to figure out all of the film's labyrinthine plot twists and character motivations (or lack thereof) in no way precludes its enjoyment. Whether Jean Reno's Capitaine Fache of the French FBI and of Opus Dei is simply a poorly sketched psycho or an equally poorly sketched symbol of the dangers of blind religious faith makes little difference in the larger scheme of things. Character inconsistencies – not to mention historical inaccuracies – were the least of my preoccupations while watching The Da Vinci Code. What truly puzzled me was how Ron Howard managed to keep his ever-present syrup tanker out of sight for most of the film. Although The Da Vinci Code is through and through a big-budget studio picture lacking both depth and a feel of otherworldly mystery (in spite of cinematographer Salvatore Totino's dark, bluish hues, and partly because of Hans Zimmer's Hollywood religious score), the film only sporadically falls into the trap of cheesy sentimentality.

But despite my many reservations, I did find The Da Vinci Code enjoyable for what it is. (Before I wrap this up, I must give credit to editors Daniel P. Hanley and Mike Hill for helping to keep the action moving.) I'm now considering reading Brown's book to clarify several murky plot elements and to find out if, like the film, the novel also tries to whitewash the story's thornier social, political, and theological issues. (As it has been widely reported, the filmmakers' efforts were in vain. The film version has invoked the wrath of the more radical elements within the Christian world, and has run into censorship problems in several countries.)

Indeed, when challenges to religious beliefs are still deemed blasphemous and – as in the recent case of the infantile Mohammed cartoons – have led to threats of terrorist attacks, the most important thing about The Da Vinci Code isn't how good or how bad it is, but that it got made and distributed around the world. Less than two generations ago, a big Hollywood studio would never have touched a project questioning – however tentatively – accepted Christian dogma. And if assorted Christian theocrat wannabes and their followers had their say, no such film would get made today, or ever again.

The Da Vinci Code may indeed be a mindless thriller, but – paradoxically – it also represents a victory for freedom of thought.

The Da Vinci Code (2006). Dir.: Ron Howard. Scr.: Akiva Goldsman; from Dan Brown's novel. Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jürgen Prochnow, Jean-Yves Berteloot.

Synopsis:

Following a lecture in Paris, Professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), a renowned American symbologist, is called to the Louvre Museum. A friend, Jacques Saunière (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who also happens to be the curator of the Louvre, has been murdered. Luckily, the murderer had kindly given the dying Saunière enough time to use his own blood to draw a series of symbols and anagrams pointing to his killers.

Captain Fache (Jean Reno) of the inept French version of the FBI is sure of Langdon's guilt, but fellow detective Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou) thinks otherwise. It turns out that Saunière was her grandfather, and she believes that as an expert symbologist Langdon will be able to solve the murder riddle. After helping the professor escape the museum, Sophie tries to take him to the American embassy. Too late. The Parisian police are outside waiting for him. The only way out is to find Saunière's actual killers.

One clue leads to another in a trail that seems to get ever more mysterious, more complex, and more dangerous. For one, the obsessive Captain will not let up. In addition, Silas (Paul Bettany), a fanatical monk belonging to the ultra-conservative Opus Dei sect, is also out to uncover the secret in order to destroy it. Silas has no qualms about bumping off whoever gets in his way – as Saunière was able to testify.

A meeting with the lively Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), a historian who seems to know (almost) all there is to know about the tales of the Knights Templar and the importance of Mary Magdalene in the life of Jesus (even though he gets a lot of his “facts” completely wrong), helps Langdon and Neveu understand part of the secret. Sir Teabing cleverly uses the works of Leonardo da Vinci to prove his point. Yet, the key that will uncover The Final Revelation – a truth so powerful that it will shake Christianity in its very foundations – will apparently be found in a cathedral in Britain.

Ultimately, the truth turns out to be more sensational – and more personal – than either Langdon or Neveu expected.

'The Da Vinci Code' Movie Review: Tom Hanks & Audrey Tautou Help to Save Absurd Thriller © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to 'The Da Vinci Code' Movie Review: Tom Hanks & Audrey Tautou Help to Save Absurd Thriller

  1. netto

    i didn't like this movie too long didntm ake sense tom hanks looks old too old for audrey tatou he could ve been her father.
    tom hanks is a good actor but too old for such a young actress.
    he should find an actress his own age