Watching Ron Howard’s new thriller, Inferno, I couldn’t help but mentally compare Tom Hanks’ adventurous Harvard symbology professor and puzzle enthusiast, Robert Langdon, to Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson from Dazed and Confused. He keeps getting older, but his youngish, brown-haired female sidekicks stay (roughly) the same age.
The third in the line of Dan Brown novel adaptations that started with The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons (though Angels & Demons was actually published first—sorry, didn’t mean to blow your mind like that), Inferno throws Langdon into yet another twisty, fast-paced mystery quest full of baffling clues, opaque motivations, high stakes, and lots of folks trying to kill him dead. All to diminishing returns.
Inferno borrows a page from Bourne for Langdon’s latest exploit. When he wakes up in a hospital in Florence, Italy, with a bullet wound to the head and amnesia, he teams up with Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to stop an apocalyptic billionaire’s (Ben Foster) plan to unleash a plague that will wipe out most of the human race. And, you know, stay alive in the process.
Of course, his encyclopedic knowledge of art, history, Dante, and the off-the-blueprints layout of ancient Italian buildings comes in handy time and again. The interested parties hot on his tail include a private security firm headed by Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan, The Life of Pi) and two warring factions from the World Health Organization—which is apparently way more badass and spy-like than I thought—one headed by Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Westworld), the other by Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy, Jurassic World).
Inferno hits all the expected beats, and it’s fine. But that’s all it ever is: expected and fine. Overly complex and convoluted, it’s still entirely bland and predictable. Unfolding over the course of a single day, everything happens in the most obvious fashion. Langdon regains memories at convenient moments—often in bursts of hellish imagery of souls being tortured in fire and blood rivers exploding through walls—the people who don’t appear trustworthy aren’t worthy of trust, and the twists happen precisely where twists always happen.
After two movies, Ron Howard could make this movie blindfolded. Filmed on location in Venice and Florence, Inferno looks gorgeous. Sweeping helicopter shots and wide-angle interior views of ancient attractions are the best tourist brochures ever, but it’s also overly slick and lacks any feeling. And a soul can only take so many shots of Langdon and Sienna running or hunched over one historical artifact or another before it starts to get overly samey and formulaic.
The Da Vinci Code had a unique, intriguing hook, but Inferno never progresses beyond rudimentary mystery thriller building blocks. It quickly sets the stage, opens the door, and sets the plot in motion without wasting precious time. Langdon and Sienna running from place to place—there’s so much running, though it’s more a casual jog than a sprint—gives the film a brisk, propulsive momentum that only really lets up for a big information dump in the middle. But even this tension is blatantly artificial and manufactured, which is never more apparent than in Hans Zimmer’s omnipresent, vaguely out of place, synth-heavy score.
Tom Hanks is charming and charismatic as ever, and between that and the swift tempo, it’s easy enough to get swept along, at least until the final act ruins it for everyone. It’s cool to see a smart hero who isn’t a secret badass and never punches anyone, but the script never demands much from its lead or the strong surrounding cast. They’re fine, but like Inferno as a whole, they’re just fine.
Ben Foster espousing the well-worn idea that humanity is the true virus proves mildly compelling. Felicity Jones comes along for the ride all too easily and serves little purpose beyond popping in with a question from time to time when the audience needs answers. Omar Sy plays a generic, “I’m going to get you” government-agent-in-a-suit. A forced romantic angle between Langdon and Sinskey is actually kind of interesting, but has absolutely no place in this movie and poisons the pace.
Of the supporting players, however, Irrfan Khan is fucking awesome. A droll realist, when it comes to light that maybe his firm was working for a goddamn mass-murdering psychopath, Sims just shrugs, says “my bad, bro,” and asks what he can do to help, obviously having a great deal of fun as he does.
While the previous Robert Langdon movies were deeply researched and full of intricate, obscure historical tidbits, all the information in Inferno feels like it came from the front page of a Google search or Dante’s Wikipedia entry. It may momentarily sate fans of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, but it’s nothing remotely noteworthy, memorable, or worth watching more than once. Despite the forward press of velocity, there’s little legitimate energy or enthusiasm, and the product on screen proves empty, soulless, and wholly unsatisfying. [Grade: C]
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