INFERNO (2016) review
written by: David Koepp
produced by: Brian Grazer and Ron Howard
directed by: Ron Howard
rated: PG-13 (for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality)
runtime: 121 min.
U.S. release date: October 28, 2016
As much as we’re used to Tom Cruise frantically running in every movie, we’re also used to Tom Hanks confused and bewildered face whenever he is in a harrowing or intense dramatic situation. Oh he does some running too, like in the recent “Sully” and, of course “Forrest Gump” (although both of those were by choice not, because his character was being pursued) – and certainly in all the Robert Langdon thrillers, the third and latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s best-selling novels being “Inferno”, directed by Ron Howard, who helmed the previous two, 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code” and 2009’s “Angels & Demons” – but, what we remember most from all these movies is Hanks face (just look at the posters). I can relate to that face. It’s the same face I made after watching this tedious, convoluted, and uninteresting sequel.
By now, symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) shouldn’t be surprised at the confusing situations he finds himself in. At the opening of “Inferno” he finds himself in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy with a head wound and a bout of short-term memory loss. He’s being looked after by Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who will soon be another young brunette with an accent that assists Langdon on his scavenger hunt-type adventure. He’s in good hands apparently, because this attractive doctor tells him she’s a fan of his work, having met him when she was 9-years-old. Sorry, Langdon cannot remember – even if he could, doesn’t that seem too coincidental?
He’s got bigger questions though, like why he’s experienced Hell-on-Earth visions. You know the kind – flowing lava in the streets, citizens walking with their heads twisting backwards and the world in flames. It’s understandable why Langdon would be rattled and confused by his current situation, but these nightmarish images only add to the confusion. Howard reteams with his longtime editor Dan Henley and cinematographer Salvatore Totino, who lensed the previous movies in this series, do a heck of a job conveying the disorienting state of mind Langdon is experiencing in this opening.
Before Langdon can fully assimilate himself to his surroundings and figure our why he’s not in Cambridge anymore, shots are fired from a female police officer/assassin (Ana Ularu) down the hospital hallway. When bullets hit the hospital room door, it becomes clear to Langdon and Dr. Brooks who they’re for. Next thing, the groggy Langdon knows, he’s in the good doctor’s nearby apartment, thanks to her quick escape skills. Both of them are soon scouring over a modified version of Sandro Boticelli’s 15th century Map of Hell painting (which is based on Dante’s Inferno), which is projected on a wall from a device Langdon found in his belongings (which looks like one of those memory-erasing neuralyzers from the “Men in Black” movies) – and, well, the expected race is on to save mankind – or at least billion or so of them.
As expected, Langdon’s knowledge of Dante’s work, history, and hidden passages in certain Florence landmarks helps the pair work their through clues and phrases which lead to specific locations, as they evade the assassin and local authorities. It should be noted that security is quite lax just about everywhere they go. There’s a bit of an uh-oh hiccup when Langdon discovers that he stole and hid a Dante Death Mask (which turns out to hold a crucial clue) despite not remembering such an illegal action.
There are several characters that are introduced from here on out in “Inferno”, and for the life of me, I couldn’t keep track of who’s who, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe not. I can attest that the screenplay from David Koepp (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) is either too repetitive about certain plot elements or too vague on character motivations and affiliations. Koepp took over writing duties from Akiva Goldsman for “Inferno” (the two co-wrote “Angels & Demons” together) which adapts Brown’s fourth Langdon book, after the proposed adaptation of the third book The Lost Symbol, fell through for confusing and uninteresting reasons.
In the last two movies, most of the threats Langdon and company faced were somehow tied to the Catholic Church. Not the case here, although we are surrounded by beautiful Renaissance palazzos and continuously circle our way through extravagant museums in both Florence and Venice. The antagonist here is a rich bioengineer named Bertrand Zobrist (a bearded Ben Foster) – also considered a transhumanist scientist, don’t ask – who has decided to tackle over-population by unleashing a plague that will kill billions. So, essentially: a world-conscious terrorist. It has come to the attention of multiple parties that the Dante-obsessed Zobrist has created a virus he’s named “Inferno”. Among them is Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan “Jurassic World”), head of a security organization Zobrist hired to broadcast a video message to be released virally once the, um, virus, ahem, is released. Once Sims finds out what the virus does, he partners with Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen, HBO’s “Westworld”) the head of WHO (World Health Organization) a former flame of Langdon’s who is dead-set on stopping the virus. There’s also Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy), a mysterious figure who shows up to chase around Langdon and Dr. Brooks and confuse both our heroes and viewers, in an ultimately unsatisfying manner.
If anything can positive can be said for these supporting characters it would be that at least they are portrayed by actors who are likable and capable. It also helps that more than once we wonder where allegiances lie with these characters, but after a while it gets kind of tedious and I just find myself not caring. Not necessarily bored, just not caring about many of the characters or what happens to them or the story overall. Out of all the supporting roles, I like Khan the best – but I always like seeing him show up. His character seemed much more interesting than this movie allotted for, so I suppose that’s good and bad.
As for Hanks, I can’t help but support what so many already feel about the movie star (he really epitomizes such a moniker, earning it the best way possible – by just being himself) – he’s always likable and satisfying to watch, no matter who he plays. He fits Langdon just fine. A professor who’s passionate about his work, is smart and intelligent, yet never smug or obnoxious about it. He’s easy to follow and very relatable, even though his knowledge is above us. Still, he’s the kind of guy where we watch him and realize that any of us can attain to his level as long as we absorb and devour what we’re passionate about. Both Hanks and Jones are good together, but his chemistry with Babett Knudsen is more natural – that could be because they feel closer in age, but also Jones is only given slightly more to do in this movie than she was earlier this year in “Jason Bourne”, where she was totally wasted. Still, in the disorienting opening, Hanks and Jones are great together and effortlessly get us immersed in the drama of the plot.
Overall, once the imposed mystery of “Inferno” is underway, it really veers into repetitious familiarity. There’s an abundance of rushed dialogue with on-the-run, matter-of-fact exposition whilst emerging in and out of secret (and convenient) passageways that don’t really feel all that special, because we’ve seen it all before.
Watching this sequel reminded me how they can be described as a higher-minded, less-slick version of the “National Treasure” movies, which themselves are sort of a natural progression of the “Tomb Raider” movies, which spawned from the “Indiana Jones” movies. Robert Langdon is very much like Dr. Henry Jones, traveling from one puzzle to the next in order to thwart someone or something in order to make all right in the world. I’ve never read a Dan Brown book, but from what I’ve heard they’re not that unique or very well written – at least these movies are nice to look at, but it’s really not enough anymore.