Review: Tom Hanks returns as Langdon in Dan Brown’s ‘Inferno’

July 23, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Inferno' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — The prevailing narrative is that Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series made far more history in the world of literature than it has in cinema.

His literary treasure hunts have sold more than 200 million copies in 56 languages and sparked controversies of Biblical proportions with “Angels & Demons” (2000), “The Da Vinci Code” (2003), “The Lost Symbol” (2009) and “Inferno” (2013) with another due next year with “Origin” (2017).

On the silver screen, however, it’s a frantic blockbuster franchise that’s become a silly footnote to Ron Howard’s otherwise stellar career, produced out of order from the novel chronology for “The Da Vinci Code” (2006), “Angels & Demons” (2009) and now the third installment “Inferno” (2016).

Disclaimer: This is the first of the three film adaptations where I didn’t read the book before seeing the movie, but hopefully that will allow us to judge this “threequel” objectively as a stand-alone film on its own merits.

This time, Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in an Italian hospital suffering from amnesia with a nasty wound on his head. He teams up with his nurse, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), on a race across Europe to stop an evil plot by Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who wants to combat overpopulation by infecting half the world with a deadly virus named after Dante’s “Inferno.”

At his filmmaking best, Ron Howard is inspirational (“Apollo 13”), profound (“A Beautiful Mind”), fanciful (“Splash”), motivational (“Cinderella Man”) and thrilling (“Rush”). At his worst, he veers into clichéd hand-holding by over-explaining things to audiences and not giving them enough credit.

“Inferno” is an unfortunate example of the latter. Oscar talents Tom Hanks (“Forrest Gump”) and Felicity Jones (“The Theory of Everything”) are extraordinary actors, so it’s painful watching them deliver dialogue stuffed with such obvious exposition as they explain the scavenger hunt clues. As Sidse Babett Knudsen tells Hanks at one point: “You haven’t changed a bit. You talk too much.”

Perhaps the protagonist must do all the talking because his chief nemesis dies in the opening scene. While Ben Foster shined as Chris Pine’s rowdy criminal brother in “Hell or High Water” (2016), it’s not fulfilling seeing his antagonist only in the form of written clues, doctored paintings and TED Talks. This leaves the rest of the cast to pick up the pieces, weaving a convoluted character web of Ana Ularu’s relentless assassin, Omar Sy’s skeptical health official and Irrfan Khan’s secret police agent.

These peripheral characters add unnecessary clutter in a series of double crosses. You’ve heard of “trigger-happy?” Well, the “Inferno” script is twist happy. We must give credit where credit is due: I didn’t see the film’s biggest twist coming involving one of Langdon’s “gateways.” But the shock of this surprise is spoiled by even more subsequent twists. When you stoop to tricky door handles, special bullets and blood packets, you know you’ve jumped the shark (Ron Howard this time, not The Fonz).

What’s more, the code-cracking too often relies on Hanks’ hallucinations to fill in the gaps, which feels like a supernatural cop-out feeding him the answers rather than Hanks actively solving the puzzle on his own. As he memorably said in “Saving Private Ryan” (1988), we’d like him to “earn this.”

We appreciate Howard trying to make the film atmospheric, combining the archaeology of Steven Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade” (1989) with the hallucinations of Adrian Lyne’s “Jacob’s Ladder” (1990). But while Lyne’s practical flashes were creepy, Howard’s CGI looks fake, particularly heads facing backward or snakes crawling around necks. Bring back raw theater makeup!

After hours of globe-trotting from Florence to Venice to Istanbul, the entire international incident builds to an over-the-top climax inside an underground labyrinth — a great location for a film finale if it weren’t handled so over-the-top. While “Se7en” (1996) ended with a shocking “what’s in the box?” moment, “Inferno” ends with a lame “give me that box” underwater battle that lacks any real punch.

Act Three doesn’t even have the courage of its convictions, changing the actual cynical conclusion of Brown’s novel to a more upbeat and happy Hollywood ending. This is precisely the thing Howard’s most adamant critics constantly complain about, his penchant for sanitizing otherwise dark material.

Ultimately, if you enjoyed the book, you might at least enjoy seeing your beloved page-turner come (mostly) to life. If you never read the book, you might even enjoy the “amazing race” on a pure surface level. But in both cases, you can’t escape the absurdities thrown at you on a movie level, sending you out of the theater with the sagging feeling that audiences never left Dante’s first circle of hell: limbo.

This rating is on a four-star scale. See where this film ranks among the year’s best in our Fraley Film Guide.

2-stars

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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