Oh Florence! The Renaissance City! The cradle of Da Vinci, Medici, and Auditore! You can imagine it now: strolling by the Duomo; reveling in the Uffizi; dodging motorcyclist gunmen and fanatic misanthropes who want to cull the world’s population by half via preposterous doomsday machines! At least that’s how it is when Robert Langdon travels in Inferno—or more aptly what Tom Hanks and Ron Howard do as a pretext for their all-expenses paid Italian vacation. And while I can’t entirely blame them for that, couldn’t they have delivered something a little less ludicrously flimsy than this paint-by-numbers thriller?
Indeed, Hanks and Howard team again for their critically dubious but financially compelling Dan Brown series. Technically, Inferno is the fourth novel in Brown’s Langdon saga, but book three involved exploring D.C., and they probably go there all the time. So it’s Firenze or bust, little bambinos. Yet, they still somehow manage to do both in their most underdeveloped and undercooked potboiler to date. But hey, it’s still more fun in a trashy sort of way than The Da Vinci Code.
When Inferno begins, Tom Hanks’ Robert Langdon is already in the thick of it. But what’s uncharacteristic for the Harvard professor of symbology is that he’s not actually at the top of his game. In fact, he’s lucky when he can even remember the word for “coffee,” much less the exact order of Dante’s Alighieri’s fabled nine levels of Hell from The Divine Comedy. Yet, the latter will come in particular handy since Langdon awakens in a hospital with a gun wound to his forehead. It’s a minor injury, but it has left him with short-term amnesia, which is all the worse since the folks who presumably shot him are coming back to finish the job.
Facing a conspiracy of enemies that seems to include murderous assassins in the local police force, the U.S. consulate, and the World Health Organization, Langdon has no one he can trust, save for his physician, the lovely Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones). Luckily, unlike previous pseudo-romantic sidekicks, Sienna is just as sharp as Robert. Once something of a child prodigy, Sienna has a passion for Dante and all things antiquity, which is quite fortuitous when the good professor learns he has a digital map in his pocket to Dante’s Hell—save the levels have been misplaced like a pictorial anagram. It’s a puzzle created by the recently deceased billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), an alarmist convinced that the world’s growing overpopulation will lead to mass extinction, and that the only answer for stopping it is to unleash a manmade plague exponentially worse than the Black Death.
… And unless Robert and Sienna can solve Zobrist’s puzzles, complete while dodging pursuers of murky origin, the plague will go off at the strike of midnight, eradicating life as we know it.
The thing about Inferno is that despite its fiery title, there is a general malaise about the whole endeavor. Admittedly, it’s nice to have popcorn for the liberal arts set every bit as watchable and unapologetically dim as the worst superhero broodfests, but one gets the general sense that almost nobody wants to be here, and they’re all eying the Tuscan countryside for a weekend getaway.
Hanks is properly affable as Langdon. Already proving his acting bonafides in 2016 with a fantastic turn in Sully, he appears satisfied to simply furrow his brow whenever Langdon pontificates upon his next tidbit of Florentine trivia. Howard, however, is fatally asleep at the wheel for this Renaissance road trip. Whatever the (many) flaws there were in The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, one knew the director strived for a twisty, pseudo-intellectual adventure for adults. Perhaps now ambivalent due to this equally disengaged yarn from Brown, Howard accordingly follows the author’s formulaic example with a surprising sloppiness, relying on new and garish shaky-cam POV shots during most of the action sequences, as opposed to his earlier, more stately and exciting camerawork.
The one exception is an admittedly fun chase through the crawlspaces of the Palazzo Vecchio, where the limits of confinement steel the director’s gaze for a tense cat-and-mouse confrontation. But soon, it’s back to spastic framing as Inferno attempts to ask if hobbyist drones can be as menacing as Hitchcock’s crop duster or From Russia with Live‘s helicopters (spoiler: they’re not).
The only few who appear to be engaged at all in this project are the film’s newcomers. Felicity Jones is quite effective as Sienna, the first Langdon sidekick who more than keeps up with him. A better story likely could have found a smarter use for her. Additionally, Sidse Babett Knudsen is quite good as the ambiguous WHO Agent, Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey, appearing to be the sole exception in the film that could pass as a legitimate highly educated professional, as opposed to a prop in a Hollywood movie.
And on the polar opposite of that spectrum is the film’s greatest asset, Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan). The Indian actor is tonally incongruent with the rest of the Langdon series, and the film is better for it. As a kind of 21st Century Blackwater version of Blofeld, Khan oozes charisma and constantly threatens to elevate this into a better, sillier movie, but alas the Brown formula couldn’t be tampered with for something that interesting.
To be fair, the third act includes a surprise twist that actually surprises, unlike the obvious secret villains in Da Vinci and Angels, but that is more a byproduct of the plot abandoning all pretense of making a whole lot of sense; it instead devolves into something that would even cause Roger Moore to blush. And the leading anchors of the film also aren’t anymore engaged other than when marveling at the sights of Venice and St. Mark’s Square.
For the filmmakers, it probably was a lot of fun. But for us, all we got was this lousy movie.