Convoluted and lazy at its worst, Tom Hanks' third outing as Robert Langdon is too serious for its own good and never threatens to elevate its weak source material.
There’s a moment in Ron Howard’s Inferno where Robert Langdon (who’s been diagnosed with ‘temporal amnesia’) forgets the word for ‘coffee’, but 30 seconds later spouts some utter nonsense about Dante’s inferno with reckless abandon as if he knows it like the back of his hand. This is then later played for laughs. The reason I’m highlighting that is that it might be the only instance in the entirety of its runtime that the utterly preposterous plot is not played with downright po-faced seriousness.
The third installment in the series of books by Dan Brown following The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Ron Howard and Tom Hanks once again join forces to bring the source material to life. This time around the plot hinges on protagonist Langdon suffering from short-term memory loss which sets in course a series of events which makes him the only person capable of finding a way to stop a cataclysmic virus from halving the world’s population…via Dante’s inferno. Along for the ride this time is Dr. Sienna Brooks, a doctor with a seemingly random and completely coincidental knowledge of Dante and together they race against time to save the world.
Now, here’s the problem. I’m all for films that I can suspend my belief for and kick back and have fun knowing that this is all absolute tosh. But the key for that to happen is that the film itself has to understand that it’s absolute nonsense and not take itself seriously for it to be a fun ride. From the offset, the film bombards you with disturbing images of Dante’s version of hell, complete with fire and brimstone and screams of agony. There’s no point, from beginning to end, where any of the main players stop to realize how convoluted and pointless any of it is. The trouble with wrestling a rather large novel into a 121-minute run time is you have to cram as much of the ideas, conflicts and plot strands as possible whilst maintaining the main story and remaining consistent with the characters. You either take that route or completely re-master the story with only the basic plot and its characters intact. Screenwriter David Koepp, who joined on Angels and Demons, seems to not want to do either. Instead he does keep some but also makes some baffling changes from the novel that cripple the story and takes away from the impact.
Dan Brown’s novels, whilst somewhat fun romps, aren’t essentially great. So already you have the issue of trying to add some gravitas to what are ‘popcorn’ reads. His script is an absolute damp squid. The dialogue between characters is loaded with stilted speech and heavy exposition. There isn’t a scene that goes past where somebody isn’t forced to explain what’s happening at that moment in order for the plot to advance. Where The Da Vinci Code failed was that there was no sense of threat or thrust in the script. Characters run, they stop to talk about the plot and exchange exposition through heavy dialogue, start running again, repeat (for an astonishing 150 minutes). Angels and Demons somewhat remedied this by advancing the plot whilst the characters speed from set-piece to set-piece, never doing as much as catching a breath. In this installment, whilst director Ron Howard and scribe Koepp have the characters doing what they were doing in Angels and Demons, they don’t do nearly enough to distract us from the nonsensicalness of it all. Instead of us racing along with the characters, attempting to unpack the mystery as it trundles along, we spot plot twists and turns a mile off. Furthermore, all of it is utterly devoid of any tension or weight which ends up making it a task to finish instead of a thrilling ride.
There’s no question that behind the scenes, the film possess some really distinguished talent. Ron Howard, the mind behind some terrific efforts such as Frost/Nixon, Rush and more recently his documentary The Beatles: 8 Days A Week, is a veteran in the business and knows how to make a good film. However, as with the previous two Dan Brown adaptations, he’s never managed to nail down anything that touches the consistency of some of his other work. Unsure with the tone or how to maintain any tension or sense of danger, he’s struggled to put any distinguishable stamp on any of these efforts. With rumors that Mark Romanek would helm the next installment (if it is in fact happening) maybe we’ll see a turning point.
Similarly, two-time Oscar-winner and nominated a further three times, Tom Hanks’ performance in Inferno never shifts gears from sleepwalking. Every time he’s on screen you get the sense that he slips into this role very easily and knows that he doesn’t have to do much to earn his paycheck. That might seem like a cynical view of his work here but considering that this year alone, he’s produced some absolutely brilliant work in Clint Eastwood’s Sully, you can’t help but feel this isn’t him at his best. Adding to that is the fact that the other actors, especially Felicity Jones and Ben Foster (both of whom also have produced fantastic work outside this feature this year), are completely interchangeable with other characters in this franchise who occupy the same roles within the narrative. In fact, the only person who seems to know what kind of movie he’s in and by proxy, steals the show, is the delightful but underused Irrfan Khan.
One of the highlights of the series has always been the riveting score by master composer Hans Zimmer. Whilst the main theme is briefly apparent, it’s again another instance of someone with immense talent essentially phoning it in. There are some odd electronic/digital inclusions that feel out of place and come across as uncommonly flat for a Zimmer score. This Howard effort follows the critical and box-office flop In The Heart Of The Sea and provides further evidence that this is a great director who needs to find his feet once again.
Inferno (2016), directed by Ron Howard, is distributed in UK by Sony Pictures. Certificate 12A.