August 2020

Inferno (2016)

infernoDIRECTOR: Ron Howard

CAST: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu


If nothing else, Inferno might hammer the final nail in the coffin of Sony’s increasingly inexplicable determination to make Robert Langdon—the protagonist of Dan Brown’s pulpy book series—into a “franchise” headliner.  Dry, professorial Langdon isn’t exactly 007, and The Da Vinci Code was only a moderate box office success, while Angels & Demons didn’t do much business worth writing home about, but Sony insisted on forging ahead.  With Inferno already opening weak, it might be time to stop adapting Dan Brown books.  If you’re one of the seemingly relatively few people—including myself—who moderately enjoy these movies, Inferno offers up largely more of the same, but isn’t as good as the unevenly-paced but sporadically fascinating Da Vinci Code and doesn’t represent a compelling reason to rush to a theater near you.

The set-up is convoluted even by the series’ standards.  Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital in Florence, Italy with a head wound from being grazed by a bullet, short-term amnesia, and disorientation, frequently lapsing into apocalyptic visions inspired by Dante’s Inferno.  He has no memory of who shot him, or what he’s doing in Florence, and his only companion is the attending physician Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who ends up on the run with Langdon when an assassin (Ana Ularu) bursts into the hospital gunning for the very confused professor.  As Langdon’s Sherlock Holmesian powers of deduction slowly return to him, and accompanied only by Sienna, he sets out to figure out who is trying to kill him and why.  The mystery originates with the late Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a billionaire who could charitably be called “eccentric”.  Convinced overpopulation is destroying the Earth, Zobrist resorted to extreme measures, creating a lethal Black Death-esque virus to be unleashed on mankind.  But Zobrist himself took a swan dive out a very high window when cornered by authorities, leaving behind a convoluted puzzle that will lead a worthy disciple to the virus’ location to finish his work and ensure its release, unless Langdon and Sienna can get there first.  But there are other factions involved, including two World Health Organization agents (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen), one or both of whom may be traitors, and a shadowy security firm which had been assisting Zobrist but now, made aware of the full magnitude of his activities, has decided to do damage control and sweep its unwitting involvement under the rug, which leads its administrator (Irrfan Khan) to take matters into his own hands and might not bode well for Langdon.

Inferno does not begin promisingly.  The opening half hour or so is needlessly convoluted and difficult to follow, with Ron Howard employing disorienting camera tricks to convey Langdon’s disoriented state of mind.  Langdon has no idea what’s going on and neither do we, and this results in a fragmented, disjointed feel.  If one is willing to stick with the movie until we get through this irritating opening act, we eventually settle into a more straightforward “treasure hunt” along the same general pattern as The Da Vinci Code or Angels & Demons, as Langdon, accompanied by the obligatory attractive female sidekick, scurries around Florence, Venice, and Istanbul chasing the virus while several factions with unclear agendas chase Langdon.  As always in the series, there are plot holes and plot devices aplenty—the World Health Organization does not deploy CIA-esque mobile hit squads, for instance, and of course physician Sienna Brooks is also conveniently a history scholar who speaks fluent Italian and is obsessed with solving puzzles—but Langdon’s dogged pursuit of clues is engaging and the onslaught of exposition is broken up by a lot of scurrying around, although this series has never been distinguished for its generic and obligatory action scenes (although it does try to get “high-tech” at one point, with Langdon and Sienna chased by a remote-controlled drone swooping through the trees after them).  Ana Ularu’s hitwoman, for example, desperately wants to come across as an implacable Terminator-esque assassin, but has the aim of a Star Wars Stormtrooper—except of course when it comes to one or two disposable extras—and is defeated in less-than-impressive fashion.  The half-baked and rather pointless minor subplot with Langdon and his W.H.O. agent ex-flame (who may or may not be trustworthy) falls flat, and there’s no chemistry between Hanks and Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen.  Ron Howard and screenwriter David Koepp did a lot of nipping and pruning of Dan Brown’s dense novel into a two hour movie format, and that might account for some elements being difficult to follow, half-baked, or riddled with plot holes.  The movie somewhat redeems itself for its weak opening with a “surprise villain” who’s at least more surprising than Ian McKellen in The Da Vinci Code, and there are a couple other surprise twists.  The climax, which wraps up in the nicely atmospheric underground palace the Basilica Cistern, is moderately engaging and suspenseful, albeit a tad outlandish (but after three movies, no one should come here looking for breakneck action or airtight plots).

The acting is adequate.  Tom Hanks, as in both of his previous outings in the role, is picking up a paycheck (for Hanks, this series has been a reliable, if unchallenging, source of income) and, after the movie lets him stop acting befuddled for the first half hour, returns to usual form of scurrying around and rattling off exposition.  Langdon is not the most exciting of protagonists, but that’s not a new revelation.  Felicity Jones, soon to be joining the Star Wars universe with December’s Rogue One, was previously nominated for an Oscar opposite Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, but her role here gives her little to do besides tag along behind Hanks.  Ben Foster shows glimpses of a conflicted “villain” whose motives are almost idealistic in a twisted sort of way, but his scant screentime is limited to flashbacks and a video from beyond the grave.  Romanian actress Ana Ularu stalks around looking mean.  The scene-stealer is Irrfan Khan, whose suavely Machiavellian character is so intriguing he belongs in a better movie.

In the end, if you’re one of the few ardent fans of The Da Vinci Code or Angels & DemonsInferno might be worth checking out, but it doesn’t represent a “can’t miss” prospect for anyone else.  Like all too many of this year’s theatrical options, it’s watchable but mediocre and skippable.  Time to let this “franchise” die in peace.

* * 1/2