October 2016 has so far been a month of disappointing thrillers. The Girl on the Train promised much with its celebrated source material, Emily Blunt’s Oscar worthy performance and it nearly delivered until it pulled its plot threads together too fast. Likewise, The Accountant had an intriguing premise; a great trailer; and Ben Affleck in his first genuine lead role since Argo. But ultimately it turned out to be a cliche-ridden mess that seemed to confuse autism with psychopathy at times.
Inferno, the latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon saga has bucked this trend, however, by being exactly what we’d expect it to be: a rushed, convoluted shamble of a movie with an insultingly patronizing tone that’s in true keeping with its predecessors.
Having spent the last two entries in the series portraying the Vatican as a corrupt institution full of dark conspiracies and secrets, the franchise has had to move on after last year’s Spotlight proved the Catholic Church is perfectly adept at doing that job itself. Instead, Inferno concerns itself with a billionaire geneticist Bertrand Zorbist (played by Ben Foster) who has grown pathologically concerned with the exponential growth of the world’s population, so he develops a virus known as “Inferno” to reduce the world’s population by 95%. Zorbist shows his commitment to his cause in the opening scene as he eludes pursuing agents with the cunning plan of killing himself, provoking mass envy within the audience who have to sit through the rest of this trash.
We are then shown Tom Hank’s Robert Langdon having feverish dreams of a hellish apocalypse in a hospital bed having been grazed by a bullet in an earlier, unseen, gun fight. He’s forced to flee the hospital, partnered with Felicity Jones’ plummy English doctor Sienna Brooks, after a police officer tries to assassinate them. They retreat to Brooks’ apartment where Langdon discovers a small image projector in his pocket which displays a modified version of Botticelli’s Map of Hell that leads to more clues as to where the Inferno virus will be released.
During these opening scenes of running around Florence, Italy, Langdon is also suffering from amnesia and concussion. His condition is conveyed superbly by the screenplay not making a lick of sense from here on in and constantly has you wondering if you’ve forgotten or missed something. To recount the plot any further would seriously exceed this review’s word count. Suffice to say, several characters turn out to be not what they seemed to be (bet you can’t guess who was the billionaire’s former lover was) and there’s some tepid puzzle involving Italian museums and creating a second renaissance.
Along the way there are some laughably brief attempts to discuss the dangers and ethics of over-population, but it’s far more important to do lots of running around picturesque cities than concentrate on that fascinating and prescient debate. The film (thankfully) climaxes with the billionaire’s followers attempting to release the virus at a solstice concert in Istanbul, but what threatened to be a thrilling scene just ends up being two people wrestling over a box with an unnecessarily long containment process.
Admittedly, the action quota is considerably higher than the previous two entries in the series, particularly the non-entity that was The Da Vinci Code, but at least they had the decency to be somewhat cohesive. It’s actually ironic just how nonsensical Inferno is when every line of dialogue is either exposition or Tom Hank’s mansplaining European history to everyone. However, Inferno’s most heinous crime is, yet again, how it wastes top drawer Hollywood talent.
THE DA VINCI WOES
Ron Howard is a fine director and while his style is not particularly distinct by any means, he clearly understands the craft better than most. Yet again, though, he displays an almost contemptuous regard for the source material here, working from David Koepp’s screenplay (a thankless task, given the source material). Howard just seems awry, lapse and lackluster when it comes to dealing with the adventures of Robert Langdon. This lack of enthusiasm when dealing with the preposterous plots makes these films feel quite uneasy when all he really needs to do is lean into the ludicrousness of it all to at least make it vaguely engaging and not take it all so seriously.
As for Hanks: he really cannot sell Robert Langdon’s “Symbologist” at all, even at the third attempt. Given he’s one of the nicest, brightest and best movie stars to ever grace the screen, it almost feels like dangling a puppy over a woodchipper when criticizing him but it’s getting increasingly hard to ignore his habit of relying on screen presence rather than acting whenever he feels an Oscar isn’t up for grabs. The rightly beloved star clearly balks at Langdon’s lecturing, know-it-all nature that completely strips Hanks of his everyman charisma. It’s painful to see him deliver the patronizing lines that take you out straight out of the movie as even the most simple of plot mechanisms are given a grade-school level of explanation.
That said, there are probably several million reasons why Howard and Hanks keep returning to this franchise and one must presume all of them are small, green, and can be used in exchange for goods and services. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, especially when Dan Brown’s stories are certainly not the power fantasies for academics he seems to think they are, but instead come across as something your dad would come up with if he drank too much coffee and stayed up all night watching PBS and Roger Moore’s later Bond films.
That said, in modern Hollywood a director and star are at the very least a salesman for their movie. As it stands, the main players here are in dire need of a cuss-ridden telling off from Alec Baldwin.
AN INFERNO AUDIENCES ARE UNLIKELY TO WARM TO. LET US JUST HOPE “THE ROBERT LANGDON TRILOGY” HAS A NICE RING TO IT SO THEY DON’T MAKE ANYMORE OF THESE.