Film Review: Inferno

The slightly wheezy third installment in Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon art-historical puzzle thrillers huffs and puffs its way through beautiful European museums and gardens while showing that it still has a few tricks up its sleeve.
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"It's good to have you back, Professor," says Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) as they dash toward another stage in the latest Ron Howard-directed Dan Brown symbological scavenger hunt. She’s right. Hanks may not be exactly “America’s dad,” as he spoofed in a recent “Saturday Night Live” skit (“How ya doin’, champ?”), but there remains a reason that he’s one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. As Langdon, the Harvard symbologist (still not a real job) who gets sucked into world-changing conspiracies with the regularity of “Murder, She Wrote”’s Jessica Fletcher, he’s usually the smartest guy in the room but only broadcasts it when there’s a need for some expository lecturing. Hanks uses an aw-shucks dependability and near-permanent squint of dad-on-vacation semi-confusion. But they never quite hide those flecks of sarcasm and insight which help give this also dependable but often out-of-breath thriller almost enough juice to get across the finishing line.

Like most white-knucklers, Inferno has a problem with its villains. In short, they’re the most captivating characters onscreen. Here, the plot-spinning baddie, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, blithe and magnetic) is barely introduced before he falls to his death from a tower in Florence, but his shadow looms darkly over the narrative that follows. Zobrist is a biotech billionaire genocidaire who has gathered followers via his quasi-Al Gore TED talk that opens the film about the dangers of overpopulation. “Maybe pain can save us,” he ponders in the all-too-reasonable voice of the Silicon Valley visionary. The problem being that his method of disruption involves a plague that will “cull” half the human population, in order to save the whole race from extinction in a few decades’ time. After all, he argues in Harry Lime fashion to an acolyte via some not-entirely-convincing logic, the Black Plague produced the Renaissance. 

Fortunately for the world, Zobrist has one of those fatal movie-villain flaws: He loves to leave nifty clues to his diabolical plans. This is where Langdon enters the story, waking up in a Florence hospital room that doesn’t feel quite right. He’s having visions of apocalypse and plague and can’t remember how the hell he got from Cambridge to there. Sienna, his doctor, is trying to coax him through his recovery when an assassin in the uniform of a carabinieri (Ana Ularu) shows up and tries to kill them both.

After that, it’s off to the races. Langdon fights through his foggy, Dante-inflected waking nightmares while trying to stay one step ahead of the assassin. Also on their trail is a crack squad of World Health Organization agents who have also gotten wind of Zobrist’s plague and want to lock it down. The film’s improbable take on the WHO as a sort of medical Interpol with SWAT teams, airplanes and nearly unlimited resources and authority is one that will probably have both real WHO employees guffawing incredulously and New World Order conspiracy theorists furiously blogging.

While Langdon gets the chance to decode a few things by dint of his knowledge of art history and literature, that mostly gets boiled down to his analysis of Botticelli’s painting of Dante’s circles of hell. Langdon’s windier dissertations in earlier iterations like The Da Vinci Code might have irked viewers who weren’t looking for a lecture. But without them, we’re mostly left with the professor and his latest younger, dark-haired female sidekick doing anagrams while magically skipping the lines of tourists to get into Venice’s St. Mark’s Basilica or Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. That means the craftily cast international players are left carrying even more of the film’s weight. Fortunately, they’re well up to the task, from Omar Sy’s dashing WHO agent, to the all-in Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Westworld”) as an old flame of Langdon’s, and Irrfan Khan’s silky rogue of a security consultant whose way with words is as slippery and dangerous as his skill with his collection of antique knives.

As a chase narrative, David Koepp’s screenplay is primarily a mathematical problem, mixing its puzzle elements in equal ratio to the scenes of Langdon and Brooks dashing through one gleamingly photographed tourist attraction after another. Its attempts at topicality are groan-inducing in the soon-to-be-dated manner of a Michael Crichton novel: a chase scene through the Boboli Gardens involving a camera-mounted drone; and the occasional attempt at technology humor—“A copy of the book? That’s quaint. I use Google.”

For his part, Howard’s direction relies too much on fluttering edits and shock cuts. But he remains as ever the reliable journeyman, doing what he can to keep the race-the-clock thriller genre alive in the age of steroid superheroes.

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