Ron Howard, 121 mins, starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen
Bodies and blood and fire and hell are all hurled into the mix in the new Dan Brown adaptation, Inferno, but the film is still the most perfect codswallop. It’s an unholy mash-up between an Omen-like supernatural thriller and a Jason Bourne chase movie, done OAP-style. Only readers of Brown’s novel will know whether its contrived plot is all Brown’s own responsibility or whether the filmmakers have grafted on at least some its multiple improbabilities and many absurdities.
Tom Hanks’ Professor Robert Langdon starts the film with a very big headache and a bad case of memory loss. He is in Florence and he has no idea why. The poor professor is prey to hallucinatory visions in which he sees characters with blotchy skin, their heads screwed on the wrong way round and big snakes coiled around their necks.
He has either been shot in the head or syringed in the neck (or both), and is in hospital with tubes sticking out of his body. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), a sympathetic young English rose-type doctor, is tending him and helps him to flee when a glamorous young assassin (Ana Ularu), dressed up as a policewoman, turns up to kill him.
The professor spends almost the entire movie on the run. The fact that he is, at least initially, concussed and very weak, doesn’t stop him from staying well ahead of his many pursuers. These include cops, hired killers and various members of the World Health Organisation. They use cars, motorbikes and drones but still can’t get near him. In every church or museum he and Sienna visit, he somehow knows exactly where the secret door is hidden.
As usual, there is a puzzle to be solved. This involves anagrams, hidden code words in paintings and on death masks and lots of references to Dante and the seven circles of hell. Langdon needs to work out the riddle quickly or all of humanity might well be destroyed. Eccentric billionaire Betrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a character creepy enough to make a plausible Bond villain, has the pet theory that “mankind is the cancer in its own body”, that “humanity is the disease” and the inferno is the cure. He has therefore arranged for the entire world to be stricken by the plague.
Right from the outset, certain elements grate. You can’t help but wonder why Langdon always seems to have a younger woman as a sidekick. (In The Da Vinci Code, it was Audrey Tautou, in Angels & Demons it was Aylet Zurer.) If this was a Hitchcock thriller, there would be an erotic frisson in the relationship between the professor and the young doctor on the run together. Here, there isn’t even the slightest smoulder.
Hanks is a very fine actor but Langdon is one of his most thankless roles. He’s not a romantic lead; he’s not a detective or even an action hero. He’s a slightly Pooterish and careworn academic, good at crosswords but whose deductive powers aren’t quite what they used to. “We’re in the wrong country!” he laments at one stage when his guesswork leads him astray by several hundred miles.
His brain is so addled that he can’t even remember how to ask for coffee. When he tries to say the name of Renaissance artist Vasari, it comes out as “very sorry”. (It’s as if he wants to apologise for being in such a silly movie.)
There are hints that director Ron Howard is struggling to take the material altogether seriously. At times, the film strays into the kind of territory that Blake Edwards used to cover in the Pink Panther movies. There is no Inspector Clouseau here but Irrfan Khan’s character, the very dapper, very well-spoken Harry “The Provost” Sims, is the type of character you’d find in one of Edwards’ comedy-thrillers. The lines between heroes and villains are deliberately blurred. At times, Hanks himself doesn’t seem entirely to be trusted.
You’re never quite sure when the filmmakers are about to pull a fast one and perhaps to tell us that what we’ve been watching has all been make-believe anyway. They throw in red herrings and McGuffins aplenty. For example, there’s the precious watch that Langdon has somehow lost and then there is the mysterious bio-tube in his possession.
Given that the film is so full of dire warnings about overpopulation and extinction of humankind, it is surprisingly cheery. If a virus-driven Armageddon is on the way, nobody seems that bothered.
In its own absurd B-movie way, the film is entertaining enough at times. Howard strikes a very brisk tempo and throws phantasmagoric flashback and fantasy sequences. There are plenty of chases through maze-like streets or murky basements, shot in juddering fashion and accompanied by Hans Zimmer’s electronic score, as well as lots of scenes showing beautiful Venetian and Florentine churches and gardens. What’s dispiriting is that an Oscar-winning director like Howard is turning out such generic potboilers.
There’s a phrase that Hollywood producers sometimes use. They talk earnestly about their hatred of “leaving money still on the table”. It is very unlikely that Inferno will generate anything like the box office heat of The Da Vinci Code a decade ago but as long as Dan Brown adaptations make any kind of commercial sense, they’ll continue to be made, however much the critics carp about them. That means we’re not out of hell quite yet, then.
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