PLOT: An American prof specializing in religious symbols and a French cop with overlapping talents combine to solve an ancient mystery about the Holy Grail, all the while on the run from cops, criminals and religious fanatics.
Too much Opie, not enough opus: Ron Howard's film version of The Da Vinci Code tumbles into the depths of mediocrity, where best-selling books go to die.
The odds were against success. Bringing Dan Brown's Christian conspiracy novel to the screen was a daunting task, and not just because it has sold more than 40 million copies. The convoluted, 2,000-year-old tale of secrets, lies and heinous bloodshed in the aftermath of Jesus Christ's life defied a cinematic treatment. Too much info, too much chin-wag, not enough motion for a picture.
So it was preordained that Howard, a journeyman filmmaker who once played the beguiling Opie on the Andy Griffith Show, should fail to reach greatness on this journey. And he found no inventive ways to elude his fate.
There are some terrific passages in the film, mostly Hitchcockian action sequences and the quick tempo interactions of the French police. This is especially true when the superb Jean Reno is on screen as the Paris detective and religious zealot Bezu Fache (fache means cross; Bezu is a French town where the Knights Templar built a fortress). But these kinetic scenes are not enough.
The film bogs down in its explain-everything scenes and the flashbacks (in distressed film stock to ensure you know it's the past) to show us literally in images what is said in words. That takes us back to the time of Jesus, to the Crusades, or simply to Audrey Tautou's 20th century childhood.
Tom Hanks as the Harvard professor Robert Langdon, Tautou as the French police cryptologist Sophie Neveu, and Ian McKellen as the rich Holy Grail enthusiast Sir Leigh Teabing (played with a delicious flamboyance that is too little too late), are most guilty.
That is, if you don't count the role played by Paul Bettany. He is the freak albino assassin who kills as if in a horror movie and then retreats to his cell to self-flagellate in the most brutal method possible. He spouts Latin babble and murders in the name of God -- a thankless role.
Each of the others is required by the script, and by their characters, to spend endless minutes regurgitating the so-called "factual" elements of Brown's book as it pertains to secret societies, despots in the Roman Catholic Church and the "truth" about Christ's marriage to Mary Magdalene.
We won't tell people who have not read the Brown book (and there are some, despite the gigantic sales) what these facts and truths are, but suffice it to say that though they are supposed to be momentous, they come across in the film as deflated bits of religious mythology.
Readers of the book claim the film, which was adapted to the screen by Akiva Goldsman (Howard's collaborator on Cinderella Man), hews fairly closely to the spirit of Brown's creation. But, as a film alone, it stands on wobbly legs.
One of the problems is that everything is so damnably obvious. It is no big trick to figure out who in the cast is trustworthy, or who the villains are. So there is no emotional jolt when each fictional truth is revealed.
I am emphasizing "fictional truth" because this is a movie based on a book that claims authority in the presentation of many historical facts, but is often nonsense. Provocative, occasionally thought-provoking nonsense, but not fact.
It is not a sin to see the movie. It is a sin to believe that fictional movies present historical truths.
It is a greater sin that Howard lacks the panache and skill as a filmmaker to glide over laughable dialogue and preposterous myths to concentrate on the good stuff -- like solving the riddles, decoding the mysteries -- that does make The Da Vinci Code so appealing as a story.
BOTTOM LINE: Go if you must, especially if you're curious, but do not expect a flawless thriller or real religious history. While there are engaging passages, especially in the action, this hybrid film is clumsy and finally dull.
(This film is rated 14-A)