Here we are with third movie made from Dan Brown’s super sober but utterly silly series of airplane-fodder books featuring Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon, a screen franchise that launched a decade ago with The Da Vinci Code and persisted with Angels & Demons. Like the books themselves, those previous films weren’t up to much but they starred the ever-affable Tom Hanks and hauled in tons of cash at box offices around the planet.
For the latest outing, producer Brian Grazer and director Ron Howard have wisely jumped straight past the third novel in the series, The Lost Symbol, and into Inferno, whose subtitle may as well be Robert Langdon v. Apocalyptic Super Plague. The third time might have been the charm for Grazer and Howard, but Inferno actually seems worse than its predecessors. It’s so frantic, tiresome and instantly forgettable that it seems like a throwback from another decade—and not a good throwback, either. Beat for beat, scene for scene, Inferno is pretty much the same damn book and movie as the other two, and Howard has directed David Koepp’s screenplay—very skillfully, of course—without a Hitchcockian wink, a skip in his step or the least bit of irony.
This time he awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy, suffering “mild retrograde amnesia” after what seems like a gunshot scrape, and hallucinating nightmarish images of rivers of blood, deformed bodies, spooky figures wearing medieval masks and some kind of battle royal. Almost immediately after Langdon begins to regain consciousness, a cool-eyed assassin (Ana Ularu) comes gunning for him, and that’s when his plucky medic Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) aids the first of the movie’s breathless escapes. Together, they investigate the mayhem unleashed by a messianic billionaire biologist nutcase obsessed with the literary works of Dante Alighieri (Ben Foster, as forgettable as he was indelible in Hell or High Water), who plans to save the world by detonating a plague-spreading dirty bomb that will zero out half of the planet’s population.
The pursuit leads Langdon and Brooks all around some of Italy’s more overly-photographed tourist spots, peppering the chase with cryptic literary and artistic riddles. A rousing, cat-and-mouse thriller could have been made out of all this foolishness, but Inferno plays like a slow, irritating scavenger hunt with occasional mentions of Botticelli and Vasari to make things sound tony. Hotly pursued by drone-armed operatives from the World Health Organization (since when is WHO a terrorist group?), Hanks and Jones scamper hither and yon for 2 hours all breathless and brow-furrowed while Hans Zimmer’s score thrums away, trying to convince us that the chase has any juice or urgency.
Hanks can do lots of things beautifully, but even he stumbles over the script’s eye-rolling contrivances, expositional dialogue and general dullness. Jones doesn’t quite register in her role; at least the supporting cast is filled with certified European scene-stealers like Omar Sy (a good-guy WHO agent–or is he?) and Westworld’s Babett Knudsen (a key figure in Langdon’s past–or is she?). But it’s Irrfan Khan who demonstrates everything the rest of the movie lacks with a witty, in-on-the-joke performance as a velvet-voiced good guy–or is he? But as a whole, we’re simply plodding along with Langdon—a duller Indiana Jones, a Jason Bourne without the mystery or the martial arts moves—who always seems to find himself embroiled in some impending Biblical worldwide disaster.