Imagine picking up a novel and starting at Chapter Seven with no clue what happened in the previous six, even though that’s where all the good stuff must have occurred. That’s how Harvard University professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) feels when he first awakens in an overseas hospital room. He has no clue where he is or how he got there, but those horrible nightmares of a world on fire must have had something to do with it. And where did that bloody but healing wound on the side of his forehead come from?
In the new mystery thriller Inferno from director Ron Howard, adapted somewhat faithfully from Dan Brown’s popular novel of the same name, Langdon instinctively knows he’s in the middle of something dangerous. First, he realizes he’s no longer at Harvard. That’s the beautiful night-time skyline of Florence, Italy he can see through the hospital room window. How’d he get there? Second, the young English doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tending to his wounds tells him he’s suffering from amnesia due to a bullet to the head. And third, there’s a female assassin in the hospital hallway who’s just killed an innocent doctor. Now she’s gunning for Langdon. Before the professor has a chance to complain about the hospital food, he and his young doctor are on the road, running. And for the next two hours, they never stop.
Like the first two Langdon movies, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, Inferno takes the professor and his young sidekick on a fast paced, breathless hunt looking for clues among the historic art works of Europe. In Inferno, they’re clues left in a trail created by a nutty billionaire scientist, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). In dazzling, in-your-face clips from a You Tube video seen during the opening credits, Zobrist is viewed spouting his idiocy to an audience about how to solve the world’s overpopulation. “Maybe pain can save us,” he suggests in one clip, followed by, “Do you love mankind enough to save it?” in another. It’s obvious he’s bonkers, but this devotion to solving the issue of an overpopulated world, whatever his plan may be, we know is going to be something horribly insidious.
There are a few things we easily decipher from the outset that are quickly established in order to help put the unfolding mystery and all the chasing into some kind of perspective, and to give the whole thing a sense of time-is-of-the-essence urgency. 1) the billionaire scientist has committed suicide. That occurs within minutes of the film’s opening. 2) his answer to solving the world’s population is by killing a large chunk of it. We get that from his opening speech. And 3) he’s set things up to unleash a deadly virus upon the world at a certain time, something like the spread of the black plague. It’s up to Langdon and young Sienna to run all over Florence, then Venice, then Istanbul, all in one day, to piece all the hidden clues together put into place by the billionaire among Europe’s finest artwork. Then they need to find out where that virus is hidden and stop it from being released before it spreads around the world. It’s all like a nightmare treasure hunt where the goal is to stop the death of humanity; an irony when you know that the virus was created by the demented Zobrist as a means to save it.
Knowing what the goal is, the challenges both Langdon and Sienna are faced with are how to piece the clues together, where to find them, and how to dodge the bullets of those intent on killing them. Plus, Langdon still needs to know why he woke up with temporary amnesia in that hospital room.
In truth, other than the discovery of a few anagrams hidden among the paintings and various other works of art, there’s not a lot of real detective work going on, just a lot of running around and bullet dodging. Most of the answers to the convoluted puzzle come via lengthy exposition from either good guys or bad guys. They keep emerging out of the old European woodwork holding either a gun or a deadly looking pointy thing explaining to Langdon (and us) what’s going on. They’re filling in the plot blanks. In fact, almost everything is spelled out by sentences that begin with “You mean to tell me that…” and “So, for the last two years we’ve been…” and so on, followed by a lengthy explanation.
There’s also the issue of the painfully obvious which haunts almost every element of the film. When Langdon discovers a clue at the bottom of a painting as the camera slowly pans across the words The Truth Can Only Be Glimpsed Through the Eyes of Death, he announces after we’ve read it, “It’s in English.” And near the beginning, after Langdon declares he’s in Florence followed shortly by a title that says Florence, Italy, the good doctor Sienna tells Langdon, “You’re still in Florence,” just in case we missed the reference the first couple of times.
Despite all the well-paced hot pursuits, the picturesque cinematography, the pulsating electronic score, the gun play and the last minute escapes through dark, dank secret European passages, the overall silliness renders everything redundant. If Zobrist wanted to release a deadly virus upon the world, why didn’t he just go ahead and simply do it, then commit suicide, thus achieving what he set out to accomplish without interference from outside forces? Job sorted. Why wait and leave over-elaborate clues all over the place with the possibility that someone like Langdon might find them, piece everything together and stop the spread? It’s like a Bond villain telling James in detail how he’s going to kill him, giving the secret agent enough time to pull a gun and shoot first before the villain’s completed his lengthy monologue.
Those who’ve read the book and enjoyed it may enjoy the hunt, but they may also be disappointed with the conclusion, which makes far more sense in the novel than the new one created for the film. It’s only the goodwill most feel towards the likable Tom Hanks that makes the thriller watchable. And while it might be unfair to call the whole thing laughable, you’ll certainly smile every time a foreign speaking character claims, via subtitles, they’re being chased by The WHO (that’s the World Health Organization, not the Pinball Wizards).
Like the madness of Zobrist’s demented plan, Inferno is quite bonkers.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 121 Minutes Overall rating: 3 (out of 10)