He’s the James Bond of problem solving: Robert Langdon, the renowned “symbologist”, scholar and unwitting man of action. The character’s previous silver screen adventures have taken in Vatican conspiracies (The Da Vinci Code) and stolen antimatter (Angels & Demons), with Tom Hanks bringing his affable everyman quality to the riddle-breaking professor.
In Langdon’s third movie adventure, again directed by Ron Howard and again adapted from a Dan Brown best-seller, a virus generated by a crazed billionaire (Ben Foster) threatens to wipe out half the world’s population – unless Langdon can solve a series of clues that will lead him to its hiding place. The problem is, Langdon’s just woken up in a Florentine hospital with a head injury and no idea how he got there. Fortunately for him, the doctor who wakes him up, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), also happens to be an expert in the works of Dante Alighieri…
If Howard’s tiring of making Dan Brown adaptations, he doesn’t show it here; Inferno opens as a break-neck chase movie, with Langdon and his new side-kick pursued by the police, heavily-armed members of the World Health Organisation and a cyborg-like assassin on a motorcycle. The opening few minutes manage to feel an awful lot more like a Terminator sequel than last year’s Genisys did, and with Howard inter-cutting his action with Langdon’s odd visions of doom – all geysers of blood and sinners twisted in torment – there’s the sense that he’s rather enjoying getting his teeth into another of Brown’s page-turning stories.
The plot’s all claptrap, of course, but Hanks is once again a personable lead, and Jones makes admirably light work of reciting David Koepp’s verbose adapted dialogue. In fact, Inferno’s a great showcase for Jones’ abilities as an actress; turning in an Oscar-nominated performance for something worthy like The Theory Of Everything is all very well; actually making such an unlikely character as Sienna – a doctor, Dante obsessive and former childhood code-breaking prodigy – seem so three-dimensional is quite an achievement. Hanks benefits from having an actress as effervescent as Jones to share the screen with, too, and it’s worth noting just how her performance livens things up. In the rare scenes where Hanks performs without her, the film’s temperature plummets.
Like previous Brown films, Inferno’s akin to Hitchcock’s North By Northwest crossed with a Tintin book; there are picturesque locations, hidden clues and mysterious characters with inscrutable agendas. Some of those mysterious characters are quite good value: Ben Foster’s on solid form as the rich maniac who decides to decimate humanity in the hope of saving the planet from over-population. Irrfan Khan is wryly amusing as the head of a shadowy organisation keeping tabs on Langdon’s progress. Others fare slightly less well; Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen, both members of the World Health Organisation, seem conspicuously wooden when viewed against Hanks and Jones’ sparky turns.
Inferno’s mid-section also sags somewhat, with too much time spent observing Langdon alternately pointing at old works of art or complaining about his nagging headache. Howard soon gets things rolling again, though, and Inferno rallies for a final couple of reels that are both daft and quite exciting. Hans Zimmer’s pulsating soundtrack also keeps the film motoring along, even in its more listless moments; the use of a largely electronic score’s quite a bold choice for a film with so much Renaissance art and architecture around, and it’s a gamble that really pays off when contrasted with the aggressive editing. Of the Brown adaptations we’ve seen so far, Inferno’s surely the best-looking and sounding.
Even after three films, the jury’s still out on whether Hanks makes Langdon much more than just a knowledgeable cypher; even now, the hero’s defining characteristic is that he wears a Mickey Mouse watch. Inferno also raises some interesting questions about the sustainability of the world’s rising population – just as TV’s Utopia did a couple of years ago – but then proceeds to do little of interest with it.
Then again, Inferno isn’t intended as a Trojan horse for real-world concerns or even a chilling disease thriller in the vein of Outbreak or Contagion. It’s a pulp yarn designed to entertain in the moment rather than stick in the mind, and assuming you don’t think too much about some of the more glaring holes in its story, Inferno provides a divertingly intense evening’s entertainment.
Inferno is out in UK cinemas on the 14th October.