Cracked Code

Da Vinci's leap to the screen leaves no room for surprise.

You know itís hard out here for a screenwriter. Youíve got a surefire hit on your hands -- an adaptation of the runaway bestseller The Da Vinci Code -- and yet itís all about talking and solving cryptic riddles, which isnít exactly suited to the visual medium. Itís also a book that depends on revelation and mystery, but since seemingly everybody in the developed world has read the thing, how are you going to surprise them in theaters?

If youíre screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, it doesnít really matter. People keep giving him big paychecks even after Lost in Space, so heís clearly immune to failure. While minor details of the book have been changed, there arenít any surprises to the film, though Sony and director Ron Howard have done their damnedest to pretend that there are by being all secretive. As for the challenge of making puzzle-solving more visual, Goldsman has simply reached back to the template he employed for A Beautiful Mind. Like Russell Croweís John Nash, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) visualizes mental puzzles via glorious 3-D special effects.

He is also similarly stalked by the annoying Paul Bettany, who plays Silas the evil monk, a religious fanatic who has taken a vow of austerity yet carries around a cell phone and a gun -- arguably the most annoying inventions of the modern world. He binds his leg with a spiky metal chain in order to make it bleed, and he whips himself while saying his prayers. No denying that Bettany looks freaky in albino makeup -- but then he opens his mouth, subjecting us to a ridiculous Dracula voice that undermines the scariness. Silas in the book passed for American at one point; alas, if youíve seen Firewall, you know Bettany doesnít do American accents well, either.

Silas isnít the main villain, though he commits the murder that gets the story going. Heís merely the henchman of a faceless figure known as the Teacher, who seems to have deep connections within the Catholic Church and an animosity toward a secret society based in France called the Priory of Sion. (Author Dan Brown claimed to be accurate in his details about such a society, but it turned out to be a hoax; the movie claims that the hoax story is merely a smokescreen.) As the story begins, all four current leaders of the Priory have been killed, but the last one -- a Louvre curator named SauniŤre (Jean-Pierre Marielle), who took an exceptionally long time to die from a gunshot wound -- has managed to leave an elaborate cryptic clue as to the identity and motive of his killer. Part of it involves secret writing that mentions symbology professor Langdon by name; other relevant factors include managing to pose himself nude like a Leonardo da Vinci drawing just before expiring. (Donít worry, the really bright spotlight aimed directly at his crotch manages to whiten out the naughty bits.)

The dead guyís granddaughter is Sophie (Audrey Tautou), who also happens to be a cryptologist. Seeing the crime scene, she tries to help Langdon, but unfortunately for them, the chief police inspector (Jean Reno) is a hardheaded Catholic fundamentalist determined to pin the crime on Langdon. Chasing ensues, along with the emergence of other interested parties, among them creepy bank manager Vernet (Jurgen Prochnow) and a rather boring cardinal named Aringarosa (Alfred Molina). Most important, however, is Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), an expert on the legends and history of the Holy Grail, which the Priory of Sion is believed to have guarded.

And here, for those who havenít been paying attention, is where the religious controversy begins. Part of the ďhistoryĒ revealed by Teabing includes the theory that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child. However, given that the book obviously errs in minor claims like the word ďYahwehĒ being based on ďJehovahĒ (in fact, itís the other way around), itís clear that while Brown may have been accurate in describing stuff he heard or read about, he didnít necessarily check the veracity of his sources. In a movie, itís less of a concern: Does anyone, for instance, believe that Indiana Jones really found the Lost Ark?

The faithful may be assuaged to hear that heresy has been played down. Langdon here is more of an advocate for faith, dismissing much of Teabingís scholarship as mere theory. This newfound faith also ties into the characterís claustrophobia, which never really paid off in the book. (For what itís worth, such phobia can apparently be cured by having Audrey Tautou caress your face. Whoíd have guessed?)

No, the biggest problem here is too much talk, despite worthy attempts to liven things up with full-on, big-budget historical re-creations of Isaac Newtonís England, biblical times, the Crusades and Constantineís Rome. Once the Teacher is finally revealed (and thereís a very limited number of possible identities) and defeated, the movie keeps going, mostly with theological babble that should have been covered earlier. The final scene is nice, but the endless Rosslyn Chapel bit gets interminable.

All in all, a respectable and predictable adaptation.

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