Inferno is the third film adapted from the series of novels written by Dan Brown featuring the religious symbologist Robert Langdon (played by Tom Hanks). A symbologist is the type of arcane profession that only exists within the cloistered world of academia or the pages of thriller novels. Although the second novel in the series, it was the bestselling The Da Vinci Code, which has sold something like 80 million copies since it was first published in 2003, that attracted the attention of Hollywood and director Ron Howard. The Da Vinci Code was a success at the box office, prompting Howard and Hanks to return with Angels and Demons, the novel that first introduced readers to Langdon. While not an action hero, Langdon was more like an intellectual Indiana Jones, deciphering clues from ancient art works in a desperate race against time, while dodging assassins and saving the world along the way.
And now, some seven years after Angels and Demons hit the screen, Howard and Hanks have returned to the well for a third time, this time adapting the fourth novel in the series, skipping over The Lost Symbol altogether. But the results this time around are somewhat disappointing.
When the film opens Langdon awakes in a hospital bed in Florence suffering from a temporary state of amnesia. He has a bullet wound on his forehead and has no memory of what happened or how he ended up here with his clothes bloodied. While being treated by the pretty doctor Brooks (Felicity Jones), an armed assassin dressed like an Italian police officer, bursts into the hospital shooting the place up. Brooks and Langdon make their escape and set out to find out what happened and why someone is out to kill him. The chase takes them through some of Florence’s historical museums as they try to decipher series of clues buried in the life and works of famed Italian poet Dante. Fortunately Dr Brooks seems to be something of an expert on Dante as well, and her knowledge helps Langdon fill in some gaps.
The mystery eventually leads Langdon to a deranged and obsessed multi-billionaire and bio-engineer in the form of the late Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), who believes that overpopulation will lead to the eventual extinction of mankind. To counter the threat he has created a deadly plague which he plans to unleash on the world hoping to eradicate half the population. He has hidden it. But since Zobrist is dead it is up to Langdon to try and locate the source of the plague before it is too late.
But Langdon is also being pursued by a couple of rival World Health Organisation teams that have different agendas. I didn’t know that WHO had armed squads on its books, but then again this is fiction! One team is led by Dr Elizabeth Sinskey (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, who recently appeared opposite Hanks in A Hologram For The King), while the other is led by Bruder (Omar Sy, from the hilarious The Intouchables) whose motives are uncertain.
The film moves quickly between exotic locations, racing from Florence to Venice and Milan and on to Istanbul much like a cheap tour that ticks off the highlights before moving on. Howard’s regular cinematographer Salvatore Totino captures the natural beauty of these locations effectively, and he uses a different colour palette for the various flashback sequences where se see events from different perspectives.
Part of the pleasure of the Langdon novels was the fast paced mix of mystery and historical lore and mythology. But here scriptwriter David Koepp (who has written Angels and Demons as well as blockbusters like Mission: Impossible) has pared away much of the intriguing historical information in favour of a fairly formulaic chase thriller and race against time. The plot here seems overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.
Howard is normally a director with great commercial instincts, which was undoubtedly led him to The Da Vinci Code in the first place. But here his direction is somewhat perfunctory, almost as if this is more of a contractual obligation thing rather than a passion project. The action is certainly efficiently staged, but the editing team of Tom Elkins and Daniel Hanley seem to prefer that rapid, kinetic style of cutting that artificially ramps up the excitement but renders some of it unwatchable.
And for his part the normally reliable Hanks seems bored this time around as though he is merely going through the motions, and his performance lacks his usual charm, good humour and sense of commitment to the character. This is the first real action role for Jones who usually plays romantic leads in light romantic comedies or dramas like The Theory of Everything. Indian actor Irrfan Khan plays Harry Sims, the mysterious provost who is manipulating events from his secret lair aboard a boat in the Arctic Ocean.
Inferno is the least satisfactory Langdon thriller to date and this potboiler hardly sets the screen alight.
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Ben Foster, Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones
Release Date: 13 October 2016
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television