The Da Vinci Code (2006) / Thriller-Mystery

MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence, some nudity, brief drug references, and sexual content
Running Time: 149 min.

Cast: Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Ian McKellen, Jean Reno, Paul Bettany, Alfred Molina, Jurgen Prochnow
Director: Ron Howard
Screenplay: Akiva Goldsman (Based on the book by Dan Brown)
Review published May 25, 2006

Tom Hanks (The Polar Express, The Terminal) stars as renowned professor of historical religious symbolism Robert Langdon, who finds himself embroiled in a deadly web of intrigue when an old crony ends up murdered in the Louvre.  A set of cryptic clues are left behind, leading Langdon to join forces with police cryptologist Sophie Neveu (Tautou, L'Auberge Espagnole) to evade the cops and other religious zealots into the reasons behind what ends up being a series of mysterious murders, the answers to which threaten to rewrite over two millennia of religious history and faith. 

If ever there were a book that practically begged to be made into a miniseries, Dan Brown's phenomenal bestseller, "The Da Vinci Code", is it.  It's not that the book is excessively long, but it does feature a dense amount of exposition for a thriller.  Most of the intrigue of the book comes not through any of the actions of the main characters themselves, but rather, in the presentation of the theories contained within.  While many other authors and historians can take credit for the bulk of the interesting content of Brown's novel, Brown still manages to have dished it all up in a very palatable, concise, and thought-provoking package, making his book an absorbing and very fast read for anyone that has ever picked it up.

Condensing "The Da Vinci Code" down to the length of a feature-length film would seem like an arduous task, as it would be nearly impossible to give us all of the information that takes us from point A to point Z without hours and hours of talking heads and narration.  However, hugely popular novels are always made into movies regardless of whether they work or not, and despite the fact that the book practically mandates more time and care in the explanation of centuries of history, art and religion, the powers-that-be, in an effort to strike while the iron is hot, pushed the adaptation forward and kept it to a mere 2 1/2 hours in length -- astonishing, given the amount of locale changes, character motivations, and pseudo history lessons that are featured in the novel.

So, how did they do justice to the book?  The short answer is that they didn't.  Screenwriter Akiva Goldsman's (Cinderella Man, I Robot) treatment of the novel is to concentrate more on the thriller elements of the book, keeping any explanatory information down to a bare minimum in order to push forward the plot.  All things considered, Goldsman is successful in making sure all of the plot elements are given their proper due, but in the process, he has all but completely muted the very reason why the book proved so popular.  People didn't read "The Da Vinci Code" because they were interested in Robert Langdon and his quest to solve a rudimentary mystery so much as they were interested in hearing about very detailed theories on the interconnectedness of key figures in the history of man, how they all relate to each other, and how they differ from the commonly held belief system held today by millions, if not billions, of people.

The best parts of were ones that had little or nothing to do with Langdon, Neveu, or any other character in the film.  The real meat of it is that, for millions of readers out there of Brown's book, this was the first time that the very compelling questions about the divinity of Jesus, the origins of Christianity, the power of the Catholic Church, and the location and identity of the Holy Grail were talked about in such a fascinating and engrossing fashion.  It might all be balderdash, but within the construct of the novel, you believe every word of it, chapter and verse.

As in the book, so it is in the film, as the best part of Ron Howard's (The Missing, A Beautiful Mind) The Da Vinci Code are the moments when the importance and scope of their great mystery are revealed to us in the audience.  Unfortunately, these moments are put on the backburner for lengthy periods of time, in an effort to get the characters moving along to their next logical step and still keep the length of the film reasonable for your average movieplex schedule.

By sucking out the bulk of the exegetical material, what we have left is an occasionally interesting mystery that dishes up many interesting ideas that aren't really given their proper respect in time to find truly resonant.  Just as Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" proved to be a big hit for readers unfamiliar with the writings of the original authors that developed such a fascinating set of theories, I suspect that those unfamiliar with Dan Brown's novel might get more mileage out of hearing about many of these things for the first time in the movie, even they are given comparatively short shrift.

I'm not really a book reviewer, and here I've gone against my critical instincts by talking more about book vs. movie comparisons than the merits of the film as a standalone entity, something I avoid doing when I can.  Try as I might to divorce myself from thinking about the book while watching the film is less than easy, but when evaluating the film, I find that I must do the best I can.  Howard has chosen to make his Da Vinci Code a somber and bleak thriller, with very little comic relief.  While an inferior film in terms of originality and depth, the previous year's National Treasure captured the spirit that The Da Vinci Code could have had to be a grand scale entertainment feature.  Alas, what we have is a sporadically engaging film that is long and unpleasant, with barebones character development, confusing motivations, and unrealized potential to be truly a gripping eye-opener for millions. Although the events play out as important, the approach and delivery should have bordered on apocalyptic, and yet, important pieces of the puzzle fall into place without the necessary sense of significance to find them anything more than mildly engaging.

Suffice it to say, I have read "The Da Vinci Code", as well as Dan Brown's other novels, and find them to be interesting thrillers more fascinating for the big picture ideas than for the little details of the actual mystery at their cores.  Unfortunately, The Da Vinci Code, the movie, is mostly about getting all the smaller, plot-driven details right, which is quite a bland way to explore such elevated and controversial revelations that were featured quite prominently, and with vastly more intelligence and respect, in book form. 

Qwipster's rating:

2006 Vince Leo