A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE DA VINCI CODE  jj

2006, PG-13, 146 mins.

Robert Langdon: Tom Hanks / Sophie Neveu: Audrey Tautou / Sir Leigh Teabing: Ian McKellen / Bishop Aringarosa: Alfred Molina / Andre Vernet: Jurgen Prochnow / Silas: Paul Bettany / Bezu Fache: Jean Reno / Jacques Sauniere: Jean-Pierre / Marielle / Lt. Collet: Etienne Chicot

Directed by Ron Howard /  Written by Akiva Goldsman / Based on the novel by Dan Brown

In a recent interview, Tom Hanks did a virtuoso job of dismissing the unparalleled amount of unnecessary and baseless controversy that surrounds his latest film - the adaptation of the worldwide best seller - THE DA VINCI CODE. 

When asked whether or not he thought that the film was too controversial to even be considered a worthy, big budget Hollywood escapade, he wisely and correctly responded that “The story is loaded with all sorts of hooey and fun kind of scavenger-hunt-type nonsense.  If you are going to take any sort or movie at face value, particularly a huge budget motion picture like this, you’d be making a very big mistake.”

I could not agree with you more, Mr. Hanks.

Well, unless you’ve been hiding in some sort of dark, desolate cave dwelling somewhere, you should know by now that Ron Howard’s large scale adaptation of Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI CODE is finally upon us.  It has been said that this is the most widely read book of the last few years (it has sold nearly 50 million copies worldwide, has been read by an equal number of readers and – if that was not evidence of its popularity enough – the book has a waiting list at my local library that could literally go back to the birth of Christ).  I for one have not read Brown’s book, but my research on the matter has given me some interesting insights on the man.  Many literary scholars seem to be in agreement that his pre-CODE books are vastly superior and more highly efficient thrillers (most notably ANGELS AND DEMONS from 2000 and DECEPTION POINT of 2001).   In hindsight, many feel that it is highly ironic that his most critically disrespected work has been the most profitable and popular for the author...but I digress.

This, of course, leads me to first discuss the so-called “controversial” and “sacrilegious” content of the book and film.  Having seen the film and allowed a night’s sleep to settle in to give me some moments of keen reflection and clarity, I've allowed myself to arrive at the following conclusion: How anyone of a decidedly Christian, Catholic, or morally conservative leaning could ever, ever take offence to Brown’s work is kind of stupefying and offensive in it’s own right.  To view THE DA VINCI CODE as blasphemous is kind of revealing a short-sidedness in those that exude these thoughts; this is the height and epicenter of blind naivety. 

I think that the key to a truly blasphemous work lies purely in terms of tone and execution.  Yes, literature (and movies, for that matter) can take a blasphemous stance, to be sure.  Yet, to call this somewhat shallow, tedious, and overwhelmingly conventional murder mystery a work of spite against all those of faith…c’mon!?  If a work is a pointed and vehement attack on people and/or institutions with a singular motive to ostracize them with what it sees as “truth” or “fact” against their status quo, then it could be deemed as inflammatory. 

However, THE DA VINCI CODE is a work of pure make-believe that only a profit minded author and studio could conceive.  It is a work of fiction.  It is a work of fantasy.  It is pure horse pucky.  It has no more real-life implications as a film than REVENGE OF THE SITH had.  Perhaps since the film and book set themselves in the modern age, utilizes real locals and appropriates kernels of truth about historical and biblical figures that it hits some people a bit too close to home.  Nevertheless, let me be the first to tell all of you potential viewers – both believers and atheists – to get a collective life and breathe a sigh of relief.   Again – I repeat – this is a work of preposterous fiction, never once advocating itself to be factual or debunking any widely accepted view or truth.  So, I want to empower you all to settle down a bit.  THE DA VINCI CODE is merely a wishy-washy blend of fact and fiction, and it's not done altogether very well.

In short, the film is not offensive because of its content; it’s more offensive because of what a routine, inert, bloated, long, pretentious, and unexciting thriller it is.  Considering the enormous amount of advance hoopla and attention that this film got in pre-release coverage, the anticipation and expectations for it film could fill a PHANTOM MENACE-sized canyon.  All of the hysteria - in retrospect – seems largely inane considering that the film itself is not even sufficiently involving or tantalizing when all is said and done.  It does a decent enough job of involving us immediately and it has a basic plot hook that lures people into its narrative simply and efficiently.  Yet, as the film progresses from scene after scene of exposition where characters explain things once, twice, and then three times to hammer home the most minute of details, I felt less like I was engrossed in a wonderfully inspired thrill ride and more like I was slumming though a boring and monotonous lecture in Religious Studies 101. 

That’s the real problem with THE DA VINCI CODE.  It’s not fun.  It’s not enthralling or exciting.  It’s not truly inspired and engrossing with its subject matter.  It plods along from one lifeless and inert scene after another where characters are all forced to engage in that type of teeth-grating expository dialogue that seems generated more from a busy writer’s hand and less from the characters' own minds and emotions.  Thrillers need to thoroughly transfix audience members, gluing them to their collective seats.  There are individual scenes that work well (an introductory murder scene intercut with a history lecture on the role of symbols in history is very well handled), but after the film sets up the nuts and bolts of its story, it becomes woefully telegraphed and painfully predictable.  Having never read the book, I found it incredibly easy to see the multiple plot twits and surprises from a mile away. 

Howard and Akiva Goldsman (the cinematic tag team that has given us two magnificent films, A BEAUTIFUL MIND and last year’s masterful CINDERELLA MAN) forge a remarkably dull, sluggish, and languid film.  At two and a half hours, the two felt a reasonable level of responsibility to faithfully capture Brown’s book.  At its lumbering running time, I have no doubt of this.  The film fails to challenge because it preaches and explains too much of time.  It’s too talky for its own good, and with a long running time, this is the kiss of death for a spine-tingling thriller.  Any amount of time that is spent to break up and segregate these clumsy and hulking dialogue scenes (which bring the film to a startling halt) are spent with small scale action/chase scenes, which are as gripping as watching paint dry.  The film, as stated, is simply not sensational enough to warrant this type of epic sized production.  Even after the story has wrapped up its mystery, it still has a desire to trod along for another 25-30 minutes in search of an even fuller conclusion.  THE DA VINCI CODE will, no doubt, please purists of the book, but for the rest of us CODE-virgins out there, it will be a snooze-inducing endurance test.

The film begins with a sensational scene with involves the murder in the Louvre (the real life one was used for production).  Curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) has been shot inside the large-scale museum by a mysterious assailant.  Despite his crippling age and mortal wound, he still has the energy, strength and time to leave a serious of miraculous clues (this is where the silliness outweighs the sensationalistic elements).  How he manages – with a gun shot wound to the gut – to hide a safe deposit key, write out (in his own blood) encrypted messages which involve anagrams and scrambled numbered sequences, all while stripping himself bare naked, carving ancient symbols on his chest and posing himself in a famous position reminiscent of a legendary Da Vinci sketch is…well…beyond ludicrous.  David Blaine, in short, would have been proud.

Yet, on with the silly story.  A Paris Inspector named Fache (John Reno) seeks out the world famous symbologist Robert Langdon (the atypically stoic and bland Tom Hanks) to let him know that the curator is dead and that – perhaps – his expertise could assist the investigation.  Robert goes along for the ride and inspects the body with interest.  Robert is one smart man and is able to decipher clues with Herculean pace and speed.  Only Batman (or Indiana Jones) is his deductive-equal.  Soon after he arrives at the scene, a young policewoman named Sophie (the gorgeous star or AMELIE, Audrey Tautou) who was actually raised by the curator after her parents died, comes to Robert and secretly tells him that he is in grave danger.  They manage to get some much-needed clues from the crime scene, which were – as stated – ingeniously left by the curator and then escape apprehension by Fache faster than you can say “Hardy Boys.”

This sets them off on their quest, which takes them everywhere from a vault at a private bank, to French villas, to Temple Churches, to secret Templar Churches, through most of the British countryside and then finally to a hidden treasure catacomb that – despite housing information that is nearly 2000 years old, could devastate the spiritual views of billions, and could uncover the biggest cover up in human history - is blocked off by what seems like a thin, police-style banner that is marked “private”.  You’d think that secrets this old would be kept sheltered by a steel door and a combination lock of some kind, but never mind.

THE DA VINCI CODE is one tiresome formula of chases followed by lots (and lots) of talking and explaining followed by more obligatory chasing and even more talking.  Robert and Sophie escape the clutches of both Fache and Silas (the creepy Paul Bettany), the latter who is an albino that works under the Opus Dei.  He further works for the mysterious “Teacher” who is a shadowy figure that is the heart of a Catholic society’s mission to conceal the location of the Holy Grail.  Silas and the other Opus Dei bad guys work a bit outside of the Church that – within their secret cell – are all in on the “conspiracy” and “big secret” that could destroy Catholicism as we all know it.  

It takes a while to get to this “secret” in the film, especially considering the jumbled up stew it is.  THE DA VINCI CODE has everything but the proverbial kitchen sink – the Catholic Church; the Opus Dei (who have a severe penchant for self mutilation); the Knights Templar; ominous cults and secret societies; world famous artworks that spell out secrets; old Grail Experts (one played by Ian McKellan who has a remarkable knowledge of every secret the Opus Dei has, despite working outside of them); ancient Rubik’s Cube-like artifacts; and the truth of the bedroom habits of one very, very important biblical messiah.  The film’s ultimate reveal of whom or what the Grail actual is remains one of the most anti-climatic scenes of modern movie memory.  If one follows the Law of Economy of Characters, you will be able to spot the “Grail” with great ease.

As a relative jumble of historical mythology, religious symbols, spiritual and biblical tales, and an obvious re-tooling of the fate of a particular carpenter from two centuries ago, THE DA VINCI CODE never elevates itself above the level of an overstuffed, convoluted, and boring international mystery thriller.  The term underwhelming kept creeping through my mind as I continuously checked my watch while viewing the film.  There is a nifty and mesmerizing story at the heart of this film, but when all Howard and company can muster is a stale, torrid, overwrought and (let’s face it) asinine treasure hunt film that is only a few steps removed the lackluster Nicolas Cage vehicle NATIONAL TREASURE, then you know you’re in trouble.  The two films are alarmingly similar and that left a disconcerting taste in my mouth.

THE DA VINCI CODE does look sensational.  Howard makes great use of European locales and some of his restaging of key moments in history have a level of curious imagination and scope.  Some of the individual performances are decent as well.  Ian McKellen has a field day playing his part as the wise old Grail expert with every answer in the book.  He has a level of pompous, sly, and grandiose intelligence and wit in the role that he performs with a mischievous charisma.  Jean Reno is particularly solid as the police detective who may or may not be carrying secrets of his own.  Audrey Tautou – impossible not to stare at – is feisty and fetching as Sophie.  Paul Bettany is very good as the vile, eerie, and appropriately villainous self-torturing, robed Silas.  Surprisingly, the only deficient performance comes from Hanks himself.  He seems stiff, jaded, and mannered in his role and lacks any level of heated passion or energy in playing Robert.  In his usually resourceful and competent hands (Hanks remains one of our most gifted of actors), he never really crafts an interesting and fully realized character in Robert.  He’s smart and cunning, but he oddly never commands our emotional buy in.

Relax, everyone.  You will not burn in hell for seeing THE DA VINCI CODE.  On the other hand, you may feel like you're drowning in its pool of lethargic and ponderous storytelling.  Brown’s book and Ron Howard’s film is everything but a subversive and blasphemous portrait of everyone’s favourite resurrected Son of God.  Its theological rhetoric and somewhat stirring “what if” religious story with ill-defined "controversial" overtones does not swamp the film’s success.  Rather, it’s the underwhelming handling of that material that does the film in.  Those of faith that feel like this film is the ultimate stab in the back to their beliefs need to give their heads a shake.  THE DA VINCI CODE reminds me of one of its famous lines, “So dark the con of man.”  It sure pulls a con on its prospective viewers.  People want to believe it to be a stirring, edgy, and sensational film about faith, but it really is a prosaic and lumbering summer popcorn thriller that lacks suspense, vigor, and interest.  The film not only sidesteps controversy, but simply avoids it all together and instead takes the road most traveled.  THE DA VINCI CODE is too idiotic, too marginal, and too mundane to be taken literally (and seriously) as an act of defamation. 

In other words, it would make Jesus giggle.    

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