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Like any series that has reached its third installment, the need to go bigger is tantamount in the minds of Hollywood studios hoping to cash in on the brands that have proven to be big money-makers. Ironically, this is often the very thing that lessens their impact, aside from the onset of familiarity. With Inferno, the follow up to Angels and Demons (2009) and The Da Vinci Code (2006), it is the world itself that faces an apocalypse, and naturally, it’s down to one man who can find the answers to preventing it.
It begins with our hero, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), waking in a hospital with amnesia, suffering from what his doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felcitiy Jones) says is a head wound caused by a bullet that grazed him. A moment later, a woman dressed as a police officer barrels down the hallway firing bullets at them and both the doctor and Langdon barely make it our alive. All the while, he is nearly incapacitated by horrific visions and hallucinations of a world on fire.
Meanwhile, a high-profile geneticist and media personality obsessed with Dante named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) has whipped up what he thinks is the cure for the rapid human population expansion that he believes will cause the next great extinction, a plague that will halve the number of people on the planet. Problem is, he’s committed suicide, jumping off a tower into the Piazza della Signoria in Florence, after being chased by mysterious agents. Now no one knows where the virus is. Fortunately, he left some clues behind and it’s Langdon who seems to be in possession of the first one. Now if only he could get his memory back before it’s too late.
Directed by Ron Howard, and based on the Dan Brown book, Inferno is a trip down memory lane for fans of the first two films, though it’s a darker story with some disturbing imagery that sets it apart from the others. The amnesia trope is a weak narrative device but it at least gives the first half of the film some momentum, with a somewhat compelling story driving it forward. Like a chase movie in the Jason Bourne vein, Howard paces the action well and dutifully has Langdon and Brooks escaping one dangerous predicament after another as they scurry about Florence on a desperate scavenger hunt. And speaking of Bourne, Howard also takes a directing cue from Paul Greengrass, shaking his camera at every opportunity with mind-numbing quick cuts that make for some queasy sequences that out stay their welcome fast. It’s a disappointing choice made by believing audiences simply aren’t interested unless lots of chaos is happening on screen, but goes against the very nature of what the Langdon character is about. The enormous potential for a smart, mystery using symbols is utterly lost in favor of loud noises and chases.
If there is a saving grace, it is of course Hanks, though honestly, with the maddening dialogue, which is so rudimentary and expositional, it’s hard not to picture the legendary actor as if in a Saturday Night Live spoof of his own film. A moment in a museum as he literally steals a priceless artifact on security footage is just one of many deliriously absurd scenes where action was deemed more important than logic. Still, there is a kind of comfort in watching Hanks on screen. We trust him no matter how much the film stumbles.
Jones does her best but her arc is telegraphed from the opening moments. She is a strong presence and while a little unbelievable in the role, manages to keep our interest. Irrfan Khan shows up for some over-the-top menace as the head of mysterious company with some stake in the virus, but is wasted in the part. And a subplot involving Sidse Babett Knudsen as the head the World Health Organization feels forced. The whole film is so perfunctorily structured and presented, it might as well be a paint by numbers kit.
There is a lot of good talent involved in this series and surely fans of the first two may find some value here, but what might have been an intelligent thriller is little more than a B-grade action movie. Time for Langdon to read the signs and make a hasty exit.
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Dan Brown (book), David Koepp (screenplay)
Stars: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen