...a solid mystery-thriller.

James Plath's picture

Nothing can torpedo a movie faster than great expectations. If a picture is over-hyped as being fantabulous, when the average person sits down in the theater it rarely measures up. Same with a movie version of a book-any book. Purists will expect an adaptation that's not only faithful, but one that also visually matches the images they've conjured in their readers' minds. Then there's the whole notion that a book and movie should be interchangeable, when, in fact, they're two vastly different media. One is verbal, the other visual. One is sprawling, unconstrained by limits and capable of being enjoyed in several sittings; the other has to play to audience attention spans and ideally comes in at not much longer than 120 minutes.

So it didn't surprise me that "The Da Vinci Code," the film version of the Dan Brown blockbuster novel, didn't exactly wow critics and audiences. After all, this was a book that became an industry. It went into mega-reprints, spawned a slew of related books, and put Brown on the talk-show circuit. How could a film version measure up, even with magic-man Ron Howard directing?

Well, I knew that I'd be reviewing this one for DVD Town, so I deliberately avoided seeing it in the theaters, ignored all reviews except for those ghastly headlines, and decided to be one of the few people approaching the film without having read the book first. I had that base covered. In the world of restaurant reviews, the critic always refers to his/her "dining companion." When it comes to movie reviews, those of us who are married or have significant others always have a built-in second opinion, and in this case my wife provided the informed opinion. She read and enjoyed the plotting of Brown's novel, though she wasn't bowled over by his style. And the verdict? We both agreed that this film fell in the three-star range. Bottom line: we enjoyed it.

What's not to enjoy about Tom Hanks? As Robert Langdon, a professor of religious symbology at Harvard who gets involved in a tug-of-war between two secret societies, he turns in an earnest and engaging performance. So does Audrey Tautou, who plays the female lead. For that matter, everyone down to the actors playing the most humble nuns and policemen make us believe that they're flesh-and-blood characters in an unfolding drama. But a word of caution here. If you approach this movie thinking Templar Knights/Indiana Jones, or site-specific mystery/"National Treasure," you're bound to be disappointed. "The Da Vinci Code" is not an adventurous romp. It's a mystery that's shrouded with a cloak of religious quasi-sanctity that proceeds with nearly the same leisurely pacing as that medieval whodunit, "The Name of the Rose."

In Paris for a lecture, Professor Langdon is called upon to use his expertise to help police figure out a code that was left by a man who was killed in the Louvre. By coincidence, Langdon was supposed to have met the man earlier, but he never showed. Even stranger, Jacques Sauniére (Jean-Pierre Marielle) used the time he had left in this world to strip down and lie like the famous "Vitruvian Man" drawing of Leonardo Da Vinci's, also known as "The Canon of Proportions." There are more clues, but Langdon doesn't share them all with Captain Bezu Fache (Jean Reno), because Sauniére's granddaughter, an agent who specializes in code-breaking and cryptology who was also called to the scene of the crime, whispered to him that he was in grave danger. It turns out that Capt. Fache is a member of Opus Dei, a secret branch of the Roman Catholic Church that was responsible for Sauniére's death. Sauniére, meanwhile, was a member of the Priory of Sion, allegedly an 11th century secret society dedicated to protecting the Holy Grail-which we're told is the symbol of womanhood as it pertains to Christ. That is, Mary Magdalene.

Now, I won't go into the religious politics surrounding this film, except to say that Brown took liberties in creating what is essentially a work of fiction that departs from reality by asking, What if?. What if conspiracy theorists are right, and these two secretive religious groups were trying to make sure that the secret of Christ's offspring was kept-one, in order to preserve the power of the Church, and the other in order to protect survivors in the lineage, as they had sworn to do?

There are labyrinthine twists and turns, a few daring escapes, and more than a dozen murders along the way, with a modern-day angel of death named Silas (Paul Bettany) used by an Opus Dei bishop (Alfred Molina) to help silence anyone-including Langdon and Sophie Neveu-who gets close to the truth. With our heroes trying to solve the mystery while also evading both Silas and the police, there's plenty of tension. But the film really takes an interesting turn when Langdon and Neveu turn up on the doorstep of Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) seeking his help. McKellen is a joy to watch, and he proves to be a perfect complement to the sometimes pontificating professor.

Howard got unprecedented access to film inside The Louvre, but wasn't as lucky at Westminster Abbey or Saint-Sulpice. A substitute location (Lincoln Abbey) had to be used for the former, and digitalized background photos of the latter had to be added to green screen shots. But the effects are what you'd expect in a big-budget film like this, and the overall experience of mystery-and escape-is a satisfying one.

Mastered in High Definition and presented in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen, "The Da Vinci Code" has a largely ochre, brown, and otherwise dark palette, which could look awfully murky if the picture quality wasn't good. But for a standard DVD, there's a good amount of detail and only the slightest graininess.

The audio is a fairly full and robust English/French/Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 with subtitles in English, French, and Spanish. There's great distribution across the speakers and a natural-sounding bass that dominates the treble the way that darker shades dominate the lighter ones visually. No complaints here.

The package of bonus features is enjoyable and informative, with ten short features taking center stage: 1) First Day on the Set with Ron Howard, 2) Discussion with Dan Brown, 3) Portrait of Langdon, 4) Who is Sophie Neveu?, 5) Unusual Suspects, 6) Magical Places, 7) Close-up on Mona Lisa, 8) Filmmaker's Journey, Parts 1 & 2, 9) The Codes of "The Da Vinci Code," and 10) "The Music." The trend is toward short features in part because of union rules that call for more pay for longer features, and in part because audiences don't have to invest in a 90-minute bonus feature. Instead, they can access just the parts they choose, and it becomes "interactive," that ever-present buzzword. There are no great secrets divulged here, but you do get some solid background on "The Da Vinci Code" that you may not have picked up on in the film. There's also plenty of behind-the-scenes footage incorporated into all of these, and not just talking heads.

Rounding out the Disc Two extras are DVD-ROM features for PC users, including "The Da Vinci Code Puzzle Game" PC demo.

Bottom Line:
Though not as much is explained as in the book and there's not the same wealth of background material, you do get enough of a sense of what's going on in "The Da Vinci Code" to make for a solid mystery-thriller.


Film Value