At the heart of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" is the Priory of Sion, an organization set up to vigilantly protect "one of the most powerful secrets ever kept." Once Brown's thriller became one of the fastest-selling books of all time, a similar organization — call it the Priory of Hollywood — was set up to protect what's as valuable to the movie business as any secret: a property that had the potential for enormous box-office receipts.
No, the Priory of Hollywood, like many of the elements in Brown's book, doesn't really exist, but it is difficult to watch the film version of "The Da Vinci Code" put together by director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman and star Tom Hanks and not imagine that it does — and that they are the key members.
For what drives this film is not the sense of excitement that clearly motivated Brown when he realized he had come up with a world-class premise, but a sense of responsibility. A need to guard the franchise at all costs has seeped into the very bones of this project, into everything from script to casting, and robbed it of the excitement that a willingness to consider creative risks might have given it. When director Howard told Entertainment Weekly, "I'll tell you what I get a lot. I get people saying, 'Don't screw this up,' there's a lot [of] anxiety about that," he was revealing more about the shape of his film than he may have realized.
Yet despite all this, it doesn't make sense to completely dismiss "Da Vinci" for its lacks any more than it would have to write off the novel because it's filled with clunky on-the-nose sentences such as "Sophie felt herself staggering backward in amazement" and the always popular "Then everything went black." Both the novel and the film are helped, albeit to different degrees, by Brown's compelling premise. While the story plays better on the page than the screen and some of the film's elements work better than others, a proficient Ron Howard version of things is certainly competent if only occasionally thrilling.
One of the reasons Brown's theological thriller was successful enough to be translated into 44 languages is the nature of his thesis. Yes, "Da Vinci" is not shy about venerable genre elements like numbered Swiss accounts and narrow escapes. But its gangbusters plot of a supposed secret history of Catholicism linked with "the greatest cover-up in human history" resonated mightily with a conspiracy-hungry public that (A) is more than happy to assume that forces of authority aren't leveling with us and (B) wants desperately to be in on the secret and in the know.
If Brown's novel has something of the excitement of a nervy leap into the void (the book's level of success was hardly predictable), the script by Goldsman (an Oscar winner for "A Beautiful Mind") has some of the paint-by-numbers qualities of a Classics Illustrated comic book. Though there has been some monkeying with plot details, especially at the end, plus some noteworthy thematic exclusions and additions, the 2-hour-and-32-minute film is careful to be as faithful as it feels it can be to all of the book's major plot elements.
So "Da Vinci" opens on screen with Louvre curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle) being chased down the darkened corridors of his Paris museum by a monk named Silas (Paul Bettany) who has murder on his mind. Before Sauniere dies he uses his own blood to both mark and arrange his body in such a way that French judicial police Capt. Bézu Fache (Jean Reno) feels it necessary to talk to Robert Langdon (Hanks).
Langdon, a Harvard professor of religious symbology (no, the position does not exist), just happens to be in Paris giving a talk to an appreciative audience. No sooner is he whisked away to the Louvre to view the body than a fetching young police cryptographer named Sophie Neveu ("Amelie's" Audrey Tautou) shows up. She soon clandestinely lets Langdon know that he is in great danger: Fache, a policeman with the bulldog tenacity of "Les Miserables' " legendary Javert, suspects him in the murder of Sauniere, who just happens to be Sophie's estranged grandfather.
The rest of "Da Vinci," on the screen as well as on the page, is a multifaceted chase.
As Fache and others, including Silas and assorted members of the Catholic organization Opus Dei (which is real but strenuously denies any sinister aspects), chase after Langdon and Sophie, they try to figure out why her grandfather was murdered and what it has to do with them. In the process they talk a lot about ancient church history and seek the assistance of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen), the reigning expert on the Holy Grail.
Teabing lives in Chateau Villette outside of Paris, and one of the pleasures "Da Vinci" offers is the chance to see it and other key novel locations, including the interior of the Louvre, London's Temple Church and Scotland's Rosslyn Chapel. (Two other key locations, Westminster Abbey and Paris' St. Sulpice church, agreed to be filmed in exterior shots only, with interiors shot elsewhere.) And Teabing's illustrated lecture on Da Vinci's "The Last Supper" makes the book's points about the painting much easier to grasp.
As to the film's other key visual elements, the cast, the results are equally mixed. To deal with the best first, Tautou is impressive as the intrepid Sophie, bringing the necessary urgency as well as a welcome conviction to this critical role.
"Da Vinci's" supporting cast is less successful for a variety of reasons. Both Reno and Alfred Molina as Bishop Aringarosa are too on the nose to be compelling, and though McKellen is always interesting on screen, his performance comes off as more relaxed than involving. Bettany as the tortured monk is anything but relaxed, and although his performance is a strong one, it is not what the film needs: Silas should be out and out terrifying, but he ends up more weird than deeply menacing.
Equally problematic is Hanks' performance as protagonist Langdon. Likely cast for Priory of Hollywood reasons — whom do you put in the biggest novel adaptation but the business' biggest male star — he is not, his much-commented upon longer hair notwithstanding, the best person for the part. There is something constrained about Hanks' work — he's too reactive, almost like his assignment was to be the film's master of ceremonies, introducing the audience to key plot elements. And the hint of dashing romantic charisma that should be part of his character's makeup if the relationship with Sophie is to hold us has never been one of Hanks' strengths.
As to director Howard, he too comes off as a kind of emcee, intent on not getting in the way of this juggernaut of a story. Changes in emphasis have been made, such as the downsizing of the pagan ritual of Hieros Gamos that plays a key part in the novel.
And, perhaps in reaction to conservative Roman Catholic criticism of the book, a section has been added that emphasizes the power and importance of Jesus in the modern world.
But finally, "The Da Vinci Code" remains a calculated bet on a promising hand. The Hollywood mystery of the moment is whether it's going to pay off.
'The Da Vinci Code'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for disturbing images, violence, some nudity, thematic material, brief drug references and sexual content.
A Columbia Pictures (Sony) release. Director Ron Howard. Screenplay Akiva Goldsman, based on the novel by Dan Brown. Producers Brian Grazer, John Calley. Director of photography Salvatore Totino. Editors Dan Hanley, Mike Hill.
Running time: 2 hours, 32 minutes.
In general release.