By now everyone who has yet to see it (which, judging by the boxoffice numbers right now is a rapidly-shrinking group, yowza!) knows approximately two things for certain about "The DaVinci Code": That the critics are not being kind and that their unkindness is not expected to matter in the end.
That you know the 2nd part because it tends to appear IN reviews demonstrating the 1st part is a "clue" that you won't need a Rennaissance-era puzzle-box to decode for yourself: The mainline critics are having their fun unloading the Big Guns on a film that's really no worse (or better) than dozens of others like it, secure in the knowledge that it's garaunteed-hit status absolves them of any lingering caution toward even-handedness. The opportunity to swat the crap out of a Summer Blockbuster without fear of being branded a hit-killing spoilsport should it be "rediscovered" down the road only comes along once every so-often.
So let's all of us, "DaVinci" fan, foe or newcomer alike, take a deep cleansing breath and observe that while Dan Brown's pulp-potboiler is closer a relative to "Encyclopedia Brown" than "Encyclopedia Britannica," it's also far from a literary dud. In fact, overall it's a cracking-good solve-the-mystery page-turner expertly infused with an illusion of depth and import via the grounding of it's puzzles in a challenge to what is likely the last relic of assumed-sanctity in the post-Christian West: The divinity and chastity of Jesus Christ.
Ron Howard has faithfully ported over both the virtues and flaws of Brown's tome, offering up one of the most studiously reverent (to the material) literary adaptations since the first "Harry Potter" installment. Everything that made the book a worldwide phenomenon is here, along with everything that keeps it from achieving greater grandeur. What Howard's critics are damning him for, fairly or not, is nothing short of being unable (pardon the pun) to turn water into wine. The criticism isn't wholly unfair... after all, great films like "The Godfather" have been made from pulp hits that were merely "good" before. And just as "merely" turning Coca-Cola into Pepsi would be impressive in it's own right, surely it can't be a criminal act to make a film that is "merely" good from a book of the same pedigree?
Tom Hanks has the lead as Brown's franchise character, famous professor of symbology Robert Langdon. While on a book tour in Paris (forget the Jesus stuff... in WHAT universe is a symbologist an international celebrity giving enthusiastic lectures to sold-out crowds and book-signing lines to rival Stephen King?) Langdon finds himself unwittingly drawn into the mystery surrounding a colleague who was murdered in the Louvre and has left cryptic riddles for Robert and the man's granddaughter Sophie (Audrey Tautou) to decipher. Hotly pursued by a French detective (Jean Reno,) Langdon and Sophie chase a trail of clues relating to DaVinci, paganism, early-christianity and, yes, the literal Holy Grail... amid further complication involving the actual murderer, a psychotic (and endlessly resourceful) albino monk named Silas, employed as a one-man hit squad by Opus Dei (seen here functioning as the Vatican's answer to the Men In Black.)
A few rousing escapes and puzzle-solving scenes later, the pair seek the help of Sir Leigh Teabing, (Sir Ian McKellan, who seems to approach this material as a kind of home run derby for dry English witticisms,) who helpfully lays out What The Big Deal Is for those of you wondering what the hell is so "controversial" about this story. I won't join the critical press in spoiling The Big Whoop-Dee-Doo, but suffice it to say it involves Jesus, DaVinci, dozens of historical heavyweights, The Crusades, witch-trials, pagan goddess-worship, secret societies, a bit of "everything you know is wrong" in regards to Christianity, and there's a WHOPPER of a secret buried somewhere in Europe that The Church is willing to KILL to keep from being discovered.
All of this clue-to-clue dashing around is about as engaging as it was in Brown's original book, though in translation much of the more tangential digressions of symbolism and art-history that made the peice seem so much bigger and important than it eventually is. Also, not unexpectedly, now that the audience is watching the events with their own eyes rather than through Langdons, he winds up as a kind of passive "hero" considering his billing. Given that his prime function, robbed of his inner monologue, is to be on hand for the puzzles and solve a few of them here and there, the result is a less-than-proactive hero who's often overshadowed by Tautou's more commanding presence as Sophie... and EVERYONE dissapears into the ether whenever McKellan takes the stage.
It's all very intriguing and interesting, and lighter than air when you get right down to it. What a refreshing change of pace, to have a Summer Blockbuster that aims to snap us to attention with bold, even blasphemous, ideas rather than bold explosions... that can make a scene in which a British history buff narrates a flashback-y secret history of modern civilization more alive and fun than anything in "Mission: Impossible 3."
But let's not get carried away. For all the cultus that's sprung up around it, seeing it acted out in three dimensions makes it more clear than ever that "DaVinci Code" is at best an extremely well-constructed distraction, a fun story well told in grand pulp-mystery tradition. That so many outraged leaders of organized religion are calling for boycotts, fasts and candlelight vigils as "resistance" to this film says nothing about it's relevance and more than enough about the dwindling relevance of organized religion. Any institution that can be "rocked to it's core" by a work so relatively trivial as this deserves to be rocked to it's core... and then some.
FINAL RATING: 7/10