Can we be honest? Ron Howard’s adaptations of author Dan Brown’s ongoing chronicles of symbologist (or whatever his job title is) Robert Langdon were never particularly good. The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were average mysteries/thrillers at best, and the greatest strength that any of the films have is that they always featured remarkable casts that felt like they were slumming it just to be in a film with Tom Hanks’ name above the title. Adapted by David Koepp, the third installment in this puzzle-solving series is Inferno, and you’ll be happy to know it’s easily the worst of the bunch, with one of the most intriguing group of actors you could possibly feature in something this mediocre.
It’s been a full seven years since Howard and Hanks put us back in the globe-trotting world of Langdon, and the stakes have never been higher as our hero attempts to save a huge percentage of the world’s population from being wiped out by a massive plague. Using elements from Dante’s “Inferno” (from “The Divine Comedy,” of which Langdon just happens to be an expert), someone familiar with the plot for this planned mass extermination leaves clues for him in different museums and houses of worship and anything else built hundreds, even thousands, of years ago. The added barrier to solving this great mystery is that Langdon has lost his memory of the last couple of days in his life after what appears to be a bullet graze to the head. I loathe just about any story (save Memento) that uses amnesia as a plot device, because inevitably bits and pieces of memory return just when they are needed to solve the next piece of the apocalyptic puzzle.
With the help of young doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones of The Theory of Everything), at a hospital in Florence, Langdon escapes yet another assassination attempt, and the two hit the road in search of answers. She’s essentially along to take care of his medical needs, but her schooling seems to make her uniquely qualified in art and religious history as well. Some of the more interesting aspect of Inferno involves terrifying, world-ending visions that Langdon has that are somehow blending and corrupting his own memories. More of a visual and special effects exercise than anything, it’s still at least showing that director Howard is trying something different to distinguish this installment of the series.
As Langdon and Dr. Brooks search for clues and answers, various third parties are chasing them either with good or bad intentions—we’re never sure which until they actually stop for a conversation. Terrific international stars like Omar Sy (The Intouchables), Sidse Babett (“Westworld”), and a personal favorite, Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World, Life of Pi) all play characters with a stake in the outcome of this search, but until they catch up with Langdon (or part of his memory returns), we’re a bit in the dark about whether we should be rooting for them or fearing for the lives of our heroes.
Ben Foster (currently in Hell or High Water) plays billionaire Bertrand Zobrist, the architect of this potential plague, who believes he is saving the world by culling its numbers and saving resources in the process. Yes, Inferno is a film about population control. And even though Zobritst dies in the first scene in the movie, we see clips of him throughout and his presence and reach dominates the story in ways even I didn’t see coming. That’s not necessarily a compliment, since it’s tough to predict certain twists and turns if they are done simply as plot devices and not because anything that has come before might have clued you into, say, a character suddenly changing allegiance for no reason. This actually happens more than once, and it’s not compelling at all; it’s annoying and lazy.
I’m still convinced that most of Langdon’s adventures fall into that category of “If he’d done nothing, things would have stayed the same or even turned out better,” as people often say about Raiders of the Lost Ark. All three of the films seem loaded with spinning wheels, set pieces in exotic locations that are breathtaking to look at but offer no real sense of place, and answers that are all contained in the mind of one man. There’s no effort, beyond running from place to place to easily solve the next puzzle. Even with a broken brain in Inferno, Langdon seem to know enough to decipher riddles and archaic codes. It’s exhausting even contemplating how ridiculous it feels.
But the biggest problem with these films is that we’re now three deep, and I still don’t know anything about the lead character or his life outside of cryptology. He’s a blank piece of paper with a watch his father gave him that he seems to care about, a hint of an ancient personal life, and that’s about it. Hanks is playing the outline of a man without any features, and you can get away with that for one or two films, but then people want a nose or a mouth. I’m not a big fan of backstory, per se, but just a little humanity would help. And no, simply casting Tom Hanks doesn’t solve that problem. Believe me, I can (and have) watched Hanks in anything and enjoy myself to a certain degree, but good will—even the kind Hanks generates—only takes you to a certain point.
Inferno is forgettable, which is the worst crime a film with this much going on can commit. And with such a talented cast on hand, the movie feels like series of missed opportunities. It may be time for Prof. Langston to commit to teaching full time and leave the adventure-sleuthing alone in lieu of a expert-level game of Sudoku.