I thought of that game all through "The Da Vinci Code," directed by Ron Howard from a screenplay by his regular screenwriter Akiva Goldsman. Filled with puzzles, anagrams, cryptograms and all shapes of brain teasers, it is very much like a live-action version of an interactive computer mystery at its duller moments, something more akin to a big-budget "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?"
We begin with Langdon in Paris giving a slide presentation lecture on his new book, something having to do with the world symbols of femininity. Before we can learn much more, he is whisked away by the police and into a developing intrigue. An acquaintance at the Louvre has been murdered in the museum. Before dying, he carved into his body a cryptic message the police believe implicates Langdon. Saved by the curator's niece Sophie (Audrey Tatou), Langdon and his new companion embark on a quest to solve the murder that is part car chase, part treasure hunt and part history lesson.
As The New Yorker reported recently, the movie comes with its own convoluted conspiracy: Sony, which released the film, has been working behind the scenes to sow doubt about the veracity of the story's claims, in an effort to make sure it's a success. They didn't want it burned at the stake of bad publicity for heresy. The basic premise of the film is that a group of crusading knights discovered a dark secret within the still-fledgling Catholic Church, and militant forces were marshaled to silence them. Exactly what was discovered is one of the few truly engaging parts of the movie, so I'll leave out the apocryphal details, but let's just say that Jesus got his swerve on, too.
The characters and storyline of "The Da Vinci Code" have some basis in reality. The contemporary antagonists of those knights, a group that coagulated down the ages into something with the goopy name The Priori of Scion, include Opus Dei, a very real and by many accounts very shadowy organization within the Catholic Church, often held in suspicion for its deeply conservative views.
Though its members sometimes wear the cilice, something like a garter belt of thorns, and one or two may in fact be albinos, there are no monks in their ranks. Silas (Paul Bettany), a missionary man with unusual zeal for Opus Dei, has all of those characteristics, plus he's adept with a blade and quick with a Glock. Silas is a step or two behind Robert and Sophie, practically hissing behind his bleached eyes and ghostly lips while providing some of the movie's most melodramatic moments. He's also a handy representation of blind zealotry, something "The Da Vinci Code" takes on with relish. It is, admittedly, one of the first movies in a long time that made me root against the bad guys.
As silly as all this sometimes is, it's nice to see an action film that doesn't involve a guy in a skintight suit with a belt full of gadgets. Robert and his band run around in frumpy tweed jackets and sensible shoes. They are tripped up by forgotten access codes. At one point a villain is knocked out with a therapeutic cane. Problems in this movie are solved more often with brains than brawn. Even though it is often hokum, it is decently thought-out hokum, believable at a two-hour stretch, if you give yourself up to it.
In a project so large, trying to please so many tens of millions of fans of the book, there are bound to be problems. Spotty acting, uneven pacing, goofy dialogue "The Da Vinci Code" often feels like a dumbed-down synopsis of the original. But Sony will be pleased to know that the reliable if safe team of Brian Grazer, Howard and Goldsman has not dropped the cryptex. That's an inside joke for the book's readers, but it just might be the next Rubik's Cube. No movie can be all bad if it inspires people to dust off a history book or visit an ancient church. Shoot, "The Da Vinci Code" might even get people to go to the library again. Mmmm ... nah. Even Hanks didn't make it. He looked up the answer on the Net. (PG-13) 149 min. ** S