Film Review: ‘Inferno’

Inferno Movie Tom Hanks
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Ron Howard's third Dan Brown adaptation holds true to the letter and spirit of its source, though that's not necessarily a compliment.

In the long and spotty history of movie taglines, there have been few quite as noncommittal as the one dreamed up for “Inferno,” the third in director Ron Howard’s series of schlockbusters drawn from the nominal literary oeuvre of Dan Brown. “‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angels & Demons’ were just the beginning,” proclaim the posters — pretty inarguably, since “Inferno” is nothing if not a continuation of what they started. But there’s a hint of threat in those words too: If you found the first two films soulless and joyless, they imply, prepare for things to have gotten a little bit worse this time. And so it largely proves in the latest installment of perennially endangered symbologist Robert Langdon’s cryptic-lite adventures. As the addled professor dashes around Europe trying to prevent a humanity-culling plague cooked up by a Dante-spouting madman, the film more or less goes through the popcorn motions, but with less technical finesse (and even less mischievous irony) than one might expect from the Howard imprint.

It’s left to a refreshingly diverse international cast of consummate professionals — led, once more, by an increasingly disconsolate-looking Tom Hanks — to breathe what conviction they can into this hoary material, but the result still gives the lie to the old industry maxim that great cinema can spring from trash literature. Sometimes film and novel can be alike in half-heartedly following a template; perhaps the most glowing thing that can be said about “Inferno” is that reliable screenwriter David Koepp (returning from 2009’s “Angels & Demons”) has fully captured the essence of its source. Brown acolytes and adult audiences starved for non-supernatural genre fare might respond in sufficient numbers to greenlight another jaw-clenched jaunt for Langdon, though it has been 10 years since “The Da Vinci Code” thudded onto screens — and seven since its follow-up suffered a notable dip in box office.

Already a long time in Hollywood years, that gap feels, if anything, even longer as “Inferno” gradually — very gradually — gets into gear. Now we’re past its pop-cultural zenith, Brown’s brand of cod-educational, cloak-and-dagger storytelling feels slightly dated, while Koepp’s script shows some self-awareness in this regard: “That’s quaint, I use Google,” responds early-millennial doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), when Langdon cites a particular reference book. Howard, for his part, appears to have shot proceedings through a slightly yellowed 1990s filter: The tone and aesthetic here often recall that era’s odd spate of gaudily portentous, pseudo-theological thrillers in the vein of “End of Days” and “Stigmata.”

Howard kicks things off, however, with a more incongruous “Vertigo” reference — one of a couple, in fact — as crazed billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zobist (Ben Foster) falls to his death from the top of a bell tower in Florence. We already know he’s a deranged megalomaniac: A pre-credits sequence flashes through YouTube footage of one of his public addresses on the evils of over-population, in which he none-too-encouragingly advises that “pain can save us.” (In case viewers need additional visual shorthand, he’s also played by a sharply bearded Foster in his signature mode of unblinking intensity.) Days later, across town, Langdon is admitted to hospital with an apparent gunshot wound to the head; when he comes to, he has no recollection of how he came to be in Florence at all, let alone with the Carabinieri seemingly out for his blood.

In place of these more useful reserves of memory, however, he’s tormented by copious gungy CGI hallucinations rooted in the eponymous first part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” — rendered by Howard, d.p. Salvatore Totino and the effects team as a glossy, bile-hued disco Inferno in which assorted demonic beings gather to gurn, baby, gurn. “I’m having visions!” he pleads to assigned medic Brooks, who whisks him away from hospital when his pursuers arrive; “It’s the head trauma,” she replies helpfully. “Inferno’s” lurching, character-heavy plot is rife with supposedly brilliant minds being under-tested in this manner. Once more, Langdon’s reputedly unrivaled puzzle-solving skills are called upon as he traces the circumstances behind his peril, though they don’t get more challenging than picking and arranging letters out of a modified print of Boticelli’s “Map of Hell” — a game of Florentine Wheel of Fortune, if you will.

Such clues wind up leading Langdon and Brooks on the posthumous trail of Zobist, which threatens to end in the dead man’s rather drastic solution to the global population crisis: a global plague of advanced design and Medieval proportions. As this apocalyptic treasure hunt leads them from Italy to Switzerland to Turkey, assorted parties of ambiguous allegiance join the race: World Health Organization director Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), who has some manner of history with Langdon, her French consort Christoph (Omar Sy) and the enigmatic Provost (a ripe Irrfan Khan, having the most fun of anyone here), head of a shady consulting group on no one’s exact side. The ensuing tangle of crossings and double-crossings is convoluted but not exactly complicated, while there’s a stern, let’s-get-to-work air to the film’s craft and conception that hampers whatever thrill of the chase “Inferno” has to offer. Fundamentally silly the film may be, but it never graduates to spryness.

It says a lot about the multiple blank spaces in Brown’s conception of Robert Langdon that Hanks, the ultra-genial Jimmy Stewart of our day, hasn’t managed in three films to make him any less of a stiff; even with the fate of humanity at stake, it’s hard to work up much emotional investment in this humorless human composite of mansplaining and flannel. Jones, at least, provides some peppery zip to their scenes together, but it’s only the reliably worn-in (and currently, happily, ever-present) Knudsen who projects the blueprint here of an actual person. Her quiet exasperation and steely smarts might even mildly sweeten the prospect of a fourth film in this fusty franchise — that tagline may claim the first two films were the beginning, but promises nothing about “Inferno” being the end. “I need better from everyone! Better!” Knudsen barks at her orderlies in one scene of lukewarm pursuit. You heard the lady, folks.

Film Review: 'Inferno'

Reviewed at Sony screening room, London, Oct. 6, 2016. Running time: 121 MIN.

Production

A Columbia Pictures, Imagine Entertainment presentation in association with L Star Capital. Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard. Executive producers, David Householter, Dan Brown, William N. Connor, Anna Culp, Ben Waisbren.

Crew

Director: Ron Howard. Screenplay: David Koepp, adapted from the novel by Dan Brown. Camera (color, widescreen): Salvatore Totino. Editor: Dan Hanley, Tom Elkins.

With

Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paul Ritter. (English, Italian, French dialogue)

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  1. Will jenkins says:

    How does the author of this review sleep at nite. Did he/she/it even read the book.

  2. I did some research on the Historical data of the movie.Let’s start with the growth of population in History which is the main conspiracy in the movie.Acording to wikipedia the global population has grown from 1 billion in 1800 to 7 billion in 2012 so in 212 years multiplied 7 times !!! I have also done research about (Dante’s Inferno) by Dante Alighier, secrets of Giorgio Vasari’s paintings in particular (Cerca trova) from The Battle of Scannagallo in the Palazzo Vecchio of Florence in translation (“Search Find”) In the movie Langdon also talk about Enrico Dandolo (anglicised as Henry Dandolo and Latinized as Henricus Dandulus) and Black Plague also know as Bubonic plague or Black Death,in total, the plague may have reduced the world population from an estimated 450 million down to 350–375 million in the 14th century.In my opinion everything from the movie is plausible you can read all my research on my
    blog.

  3. Bette says:

    Sorry but I stopped reading THIS review when the critic described Tom Hanks as “increasingly disconsolate-looking”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Are you kidding me?????????????? He looks absolutely fantastic!!!!!!!!!!!!! That told me this critic is either extremely young or just plain blind or jealous!! I’ll try another review….thank you very much!!!

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  5. Rudy Mario says:

    Sad Fact 1: Movie opened 2 weeks ago in certain foreign regions with mediocre to poor reviews and bo collections

    Sad Fact 2: Ron Howard is past his prime. Last movies all flopped badly

    Sad Fact 3: Very likable Tom Hanks is also past his prime and needs very good script and top notch in their prime directors to make it happen.

    Challenging for movie to be a hit at the BO.

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  8. red says:

    How can you say that the movie “holds true to the letter and spirit of its source”? In the novel, the true nature of Zobrist’s genial virus gets revealed and the problem of overpopulation solved. In the movie, the nature of the virus is not touched upon, and the virus is never set free! The movie totally distorts the original essence of the novel!

  9. stevenkovacs says:

    Loved the novel; can’t to watch the film!

  10. Sexracist says:

    Wiping out humanity with disease is a great idea.

  11. Raymond Gross says:

    “Trash literature”? I, for one, thought the book was amazing. I miss the days when Variety posted reviews that let us know what most people would think of a film. If you come to this film biased from the outset because you don’t like Dan Brown’s novels, then maybe you should let someone else do the review in the first place. A review that starts off with “I don’t like the book,” can only go down hill from there. Can we please get some journalistic integrity back at Variety. Please.

    • John says:

      Variety has several reporters writing movie reviews. Each reporter has his or her own style, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Sometimes I agreed with their reviews but there were times I disliked the reviews a lot. It’s all matter of personal opinion. I don’t see Variety been bias at all.

    • Sexracist says:

      I hope you realize that having someone with a favorable opinion of the book review the movie represents the exact same amount of bias as someone with an unfavorable opinion.

      So then we would be left with someone with no knowledge of the book reviewing the film. Yes, an uninformed opinion is best, isn’t it? Why don’t we go one step further and get someone who knows nothing about movies? Surely the fact that this critic is familiar with Ron Howard and Tom Hanks demonstrates he is unfit to review a movie made by Hanks and Ryan.

    • Honest Man says:

      Dan Brown is clever

      the short chapters make people feel like they’re flying through it

      most people don’t read books anymore

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