Inferno (United States/Hungary, 2016)

October 27, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Inferno Poster

One of the biggest mysteries about the Robert Langdon movies is why they don’t work. Dan Brown has a large, built-in fan base. There’s no lack of talent in the productions. The director is Oscar winner Ron Howard (who was near the zenith of his career when he made The Da Vinci Code) and the lead actor is household name Tom Hanks. Yet these movies have never succeeded. The Da Vinci Code was adequate but forgettable. Angels & Demons was godawful. Inferno is somewhere in between - watchable but by no means worth the money and effort necessary to see it theatrically.

Inferno’s existence is somewhat perplexing and requires an analysis of the international box office for it to make any sense. Sony Pictures is obviously expecting a big overseas haul since the film’s domestic prospects look bleak. The Da Vinci Code was a moderate North American success but it scored big outside of the United States and Canada. Angels & Demons didn’t do much domestically but its international gross pushed it into the black. If the trend continues, Inferno might make a profit despite being largely ignored in its backyard.

Inferno starts with the hero, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), awakening in a Florence hospital with a head wound. He has no memory of how he got it. The attending physician, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), informs him that he was grazed by a bullet and the short-term amnesia he is suffering will pass. Soon, however, an assassin (Ana Ularu) has invaded the hospital and is gunning for Langdon. He and Sienna escape using staircases and a back door and, as the symbologist recovers both his memories and his powers of deduction, he begins a quest to determine who is trying to kill him, and why. It is connected to a lethal virus that the late nutcase billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) intended to spread. Following Zobrist’s death, the virus remains “out there”, waiting to be activated by an unknown disciple. Meanwhile, a consortium hired to assist Zobrist has become disturbed by his activities. After watching a video elucidating The Plan, the consortium’s Provost (Irrfan Khan) decides to join forces with the World Health Organization to stop the madness. But there are traitors aplenty, making Langdon’s task all the more difficult and dangerous.

The movie can be neatly divided into three sections. In the first, lasting about 30 minutes, we have no idea what’s going on as director Ron Howard attempts to replicate Langdon’s fragmented state of mind. The movie feels disjointed and there are repeated apocalyptic visions inspired by Dante.  Unfortunately, this isn’t a good way to provide viewers with a gateway into a motion picture world (especially those unfamiliar with the character from his previous outings). The first act is confusing and Langdon’s infirmity distances him from us.

The second section, which comprises the film’s middle hour, has Langdon, supported by his attractive doctor-turned-assistant, in investigative mode as he hopscotches across Italy. To the extent that Inferno works, it’s because of this segment. Langdon’s dogged pursuit of clues (which generally lead to other clues rather than a solution) is engaging and there are a couple of action sequences inserted to keep things from becoming too exposition-heavy. Unfortunately, the screenplay suffers from compression issues - too many pages being condensed into too little running time. The pacing is poor and plot holes result from cuts to the material.

The third section is an anticlimactic disaster. Not only does it not follow the book (which had a smarter, albeit less cinematic, resolution) but it devolves into generic James Bond-inspired action. Langdon is no 007 and the logistics of the finale make little or no sense. The same can be said of the motivations and actions of some of the characters. To the extent that Inferno’s first 3/4 can be called “entertaining”, the climax is a letdown of catastrophic proportions.

The acting is a tick above adequate. Tom Hanks, as was the case the other two times he played this character, is collecting a paycheck. Felicity Jones isn’t given much of an opportunity to do more than walk in his shadow. (Attempts to give her a backstory - scenes that don’t happen until well past the halfway point - are perfunctory.) Ben Foster has little screen time. (We can be thankful for this because he moved on to make the superlative Hell or High Water.) The best work is turned in by the nearly mute Ana Ularu (whose fierce expression speaks volumes) and Irrfan Khan, whose character is intriguing enough to deserve more screen time.

The problem with adapting a narrative as complex as the one spun by Brown in Inferno is that it requires considerable massaging to pummel it into screen-ready shape. In this case, most of the choices made by Howard and script writer David Koepp seem to be the wrong ones. They diminish the story’s intelligence and plausibility, transforming it into a cut-rate Bond/Sherlock Holmes hybrid… and that probably sounds more interesting than it is. Inferno is a disappointment - perhaps not to the degree that Angels & Demons was but enough to sadden fans of Brown’s books and confuse and distance those who haven’t been exposed to the author’s prose.

Inferno (United States/Hungary, 2016)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 2016-10-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1