Theological Thriller a Mediocrity
Overshadowed by a ban in several countries and the Vatican's legally confrontational denunciation, director Ron Howard's The Da Vinci Code is not bad. Nor is it very good.

Based on the mega-bestseller by Dan Brown, Mr. Howard apparently softened the main character, a professor who studies the meaning of symbols played by Tom Hanks, by injecting him with faith—never a complement to a character whose livelihood depends on thought. Mr. Hanks' mixed character bogs the whole thing down.

But it does twist and thrill. For a religious-based potboiler—indisputably siding with mysticism—the puzzle is tricky and sort of fun to follow. The plot—a conspiracy to conceal Christ's true legacy—is pretty straight and relatively predictable.

Starting slower than a Catholic mass with a grotesquely cryptic murder in Paris's Louvre, the professor is summoned from a book-signing to meet Jean Reno's policeman at the crime scene, which resembles genius Leonardo Da Vinci's famous drawing, Vitruvian Man. Enter a pretty young heroine played by Audrey Tautou who turns out to be the dead man's granddaughter.

With stilted dialog between Tautou's waif and Mr. Hanks, it feels like the novel's plot points are crammed without discretion, and the effect is information overload early in the action. Akiva Goldsman's (A Beautiful Mind) script piles on the puzzle's pieces before making the players or the puzzle matter.

The Da Vinci Code recovers, with strong supporting performances, including Ian McKellen's as the prof's academic friend and colleague. Wanted for the murder, the couple on the run gets moving along, bumping into Silas, an albino "soldier for God" (Paul Bettany) who's the most religious person in the picture. He abides Catholic morality, self-sacrifice, as fundamentally as a radical Moslem does; he is utterly without an ego.

The selfless albino, a member of a Catholic sub-sect led by Alfred Molina's cellular phone-friendly priest, is on orders to extinguish the movie's truth about Jesus Christ. Jean Reno's cop, operating from his own playbook, is rarely far behind. Among others, including Jurgen Prochnow—a terrific actor in a small role—everyone is suspect.

Long-haired Mr. Hanks and French-accented Tautou skedaddle across Europe, eluding gendarmes, escaping to a French chateau and jetting to London, all the while tracking clues and positing theories using their knowledge of history and Catholicism.

Tautou's childhood takes on added significance as the pair come to possess another Da Vinci treasure that implicates the Holy Grail, Da Vinci's The Last Supper and—gasp!—the very foundations of the Catholic Church. Without spoiling the twists, it involves Jesus and, broadly, it secularizes Catholicism.

This will not endear the movie, which counts on basic history knowledge, to the comic book crowd, who will not get it, and, conversely, Mr. Howard would have been branded a blasphemer even had he added hundreds of Vatican gift shop product placements.

Plot turns are abundant and exhaustive, if occasionally surprising, though a vast left-wing conspiracy falls flat, and the characters are bland and contradictory in what amounts to a zero-sum game. Inconsistent use of subtitles and mini-flashbacks to episodic histories and relevant past events do not help.

Faith will set you free, The Da Vinci Code asserts half-heartedly, leaving an ineffectual Tom Hanks praying on his knees like an overgrown altar boy after a couple of mediocre hours of theology thrills that occupy the time like a Rubik's Cube—with just as much intellectual value.

DVD Notes

With just under a couple of hours of extras, The Da Vinci Code is offered on an adequately equipped two-disc widescreen edition. What is essentially one, long, overproduced stream of cast and crew interviews is subcategorized into smaller bits. Studios do this in order to label the package with attractive titles.

For example, take A Discussion with Dan Brown, a one-on-one with the bestselling book's author. The standard issue piece clocks nearly five minutes, which is more of a chat than a discussion. The overall program is informative. Brown, an Episcopalian conspiracy theorist who went to Bible camp, wanted to explore Christian history and write about what he calls "the gray area between good and evil." His next book with the Tom Hanks professor character takes place in the United States.

Almost every artist involved in the movie is interviewed across the many features and they discuss their unique access to the Louvre (without providing a proper introduction), Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and Mr. Howard's amicable meeting with French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. Printed materials include a promotional piece for Sony technology and a merchandise tie-in—with not one page about the DVD or the movie. This puzzler ultimately feels like a prize for those who endured Catholic school and catechism classes, giving some validation for having acquired that knowledge, and, to the millions of lapsed and cafeteria Catholics who want to have their cake and eat it, too, embracing Tom Hanks' closing DVD voiceover—"maybe the human is divine"—while hedging their bets.