Outside of women disappearing or being tied up, or something containing even the hint of a boy wizard, it’s hard to conceive of publishing phenomenons in the mid to late ’10s. Back in the early 2000s, Dan Brown took the world by storm with The Da Vinci Code, a deceptively soft-hitting page-turner that pretended to challenge religious orthodoxies that it actually served to reinforce. The franchise spawned two lethargic blockbusters out of publishing order and now, some seven years after the release of Angels and Demons, Ron Howard (The Beatles: Eight Days a Week) is back with an adaption of the series’ fourth book, Inferno. At this point in 2016, the soporific European-set anti-thriller is becoming a dangerous genre indeed.
Symbologist professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks, Sully) wakes up in Florence with no memory of the previous 48 hours. Pursued by an assassin, Langdon escapes from the hospital with Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything), and gradually realises that he has been tasked with finding a virus that will wipe out at least half of the world’s population by following a series of clues hidden in renaissance art by reclusive billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, Warcraft) days before he killed himself. Langdon is pursued across European landmarks by World Health Organisation agents Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen, TV’s Westworld) and Christoph Bruner (Omar Sy, Burnt), as well as the Provost (Irrfan Khan, Jurassic World) the leader of a shadowy organisation operating out of a secret boat.
Starting Inferno in media res provides the impression that there’s much more to it than there ultimately is. Dan Brown’s books are page-turners because they’re packed with ridiculous amounts of intricate and arcane details about cults, pseudo-science and graphic dismemberment and body modifications; on the screen, Inferno is a sludge that feels like it has no stakes, which should be impossible for a story about the potential death of billions of people. Given that the main villain is dead before the movie kicks into gear, we are left with a rotating cast of potential secondary villains, none of whom do anything more threatening than wielding guns.
Hanks, with very little in the way of art history mystery to actually solve — partly because he did most of it before he lost his memory, and partly because screenwriter David Koepp (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) has produced a script devoid of intriguing complications — sleepwalks through the film, nursing his character’s concussion and only briefly getting a moment of emotion in his connection with the valiant Knudsen. The true surprise of a film that wears its twists very lightly is that Jones is never once posited as a love interest for Hanks, which is the most sensible move it pulls.
All of Inferno’s treats are delivered at the hands of Khan, who is gleefully murderous in a way that is literally never explained. He’s a man who came from a ship and that’s all we’ll ever know of him, but he has knives and a turn of phrase. Khan provides the most character in a film that asks the audience to seek that quality in the art and architecture of Europe, none of which is framed reverently by cinematographer Salvatore Totino (Concussion).
Ron Howard is an accomplished director, but none of his three Robert Langdon movies can be described as such. With nothing propulsive to its story, a largely vanilla (albeit diverse) cast and a protagonist who just wants to go to bed, Inferno is a two-hour travelogue that ultimately goes nowhere.
Inferno opened in Australian cinemas on October 13, 2016.
Directed by: Ron Howard.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Irrfan Khan.