Ron Howard and Tom Hanks’ film of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was a diverting airplane book of a movie, while their follow-up Angels & Demons was simply ludicrous and overblown. The opening scenes in the duo’s third Brown adaptation, Inferno, promise something in between: an over-the-top guilty pleasure, perhaps.
Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in what he at first thinks is Mass. General, but then he recognizes the Duomo outside his window and realizes he’s in Florence, Italy. Afflicted by visions of hellfire and gushing blood and twisted heads and bodies that Ken Russell might have created in an apocalyptic frame of mind, Langdon is tended to by ER doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who must whisk him to safety when a steely-eyed hitwoman (Ana Ularu) dressed in carabinieri gear comes calling to kill him.
Back at Sienna’s apartment, Langdon begins to realize that he’s the unwilling center of a plot to wipe out billions of people in the name of solving the overpopulation problem. He’s at first afflicted by very selective amnesia; he can remember his Gmail account information and recognize medieval plague masks, but stuck on how to ask for a cup of coffee (“It’s brown and hot and people drink it in the morning…”). Fortunately, Sienna, in addition to her medical skills, just happens to be well-versed in everything from government-issue bioweapon containers to the writings of Dante (hence the title) and the art of Boticelli. All this silliness in David Koepp’s screenplay is put to screen with a maximum of flash cuts and shifting focus by director Howard, and for a little while, Inferno promises to be ridiculous fun.
That engagement drains away the longer the movie goes on, though, and Langdon and Sienna follow a trail of clues to Venice and Geneva and Istanbul, tracked by World Health Organization personnel and agents of a shadowy Provost (Irrfan Khan). They’re all after a virus created by recently suicided billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) to cull the human herd, a threat that you would think would inspire a little more tension than it does here. Instead, Inferno proceeds as a series of lukewarm pursuit sequences punctuated by expositional dialogue that takes the place of character-building. Hanks is as winning an actor as we have, but there’s little to this iteration of Langdon beyond a surface intellectualism and earnest determination that take the place of an actual personality.
Everyone else in what might have been called an “international cast” in the '70s (also including Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen) fulfills their roles dutifully, with Khan adding a little extra panache as the soft-spoken but willful puppetmaster. None of them can get past the fact that their roles are merely pawns in a scenario that randomly flips their scripts and reassigns their motivations and allegiances, yet never jolts you with a true feeling of a-ha! surprise. Nor is the mystery especially compelling, since too much of Zobrist’s plot is laid out early on, and the solving involves deciphering clues too arcane for the laypeople in the audience to unravel along with the protagonists.
I’ll admit I haven’t read Brown’s source novel (though it’s been reported elsewhere that quite a few liberties have been taken with his text), so I can’t confirm whether its strengths have been lost here. What I can say is that a historically and culturally inflected potboiler like this should at least leave you with a desire to visit its colorful locations and delve into the art and literature that drive the plot. Inferno, however, doesn’t leave you with much lingering curiosity about exploring the works of either Brown or Dante.