If we’re Dante, Tom Hanks is Virgil and Inferno is Hell.
The latest film installment in Dan Brown’s cryptographical thriller series, Inferno discards the religious undercurrents of the previous films without shedding the iconography. The resulting tedium has moments of absurd self-reflexivity with a much less interesting (or controversial) casing. Without Brown’s obsessive religious historicism fueling the plot, the film isn’t just boring – it doesn’t feel like it belongs to anyone.
Ron Howard, back for his third lucrative directing gig in the series, initially dabbles in a hellish version of a Paul Greengrass Bourne movie complete with shaky, staticky digital images juxtaposed with blunt voice clips of villainous monologuing. That’s telltale cinematic language for amnesia and Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has a hell of a case. Langdon – famous for solving anagrams, knowing Italian history, and being chased while accompanied by different women twenty years his junior – wakes in a hospital bed with a convenient head injury and an even more conveniently helpful attending doctor (Felicity Jones).
He’s being chased and he doesn’t know why. Time to start checking off those super-spy movie boxes. There’s a shadowy tech center, untrustworthy police and other authority organizations, and some pop-historical clues to uncover.
The only things that make Inferno more interesting and bizarre than the hundreds of other purely mediocre thrillers of its ilk are the hellish visions of the damned interspersed in the tacky 2000s plot. Blistering at the edges of Langdon’s psyche are images ripped from Gustave Doré or Hieronymus Bosch rendered through an overactive toaster oven. The literary punishments of sinners in Dante’s Inferno blurrily brand the screen as portentous victims of the film’s vague ultimate scheme.
The schemer, a renowned billionaire bioengineer (“wow, must be nice,” comments Langdon) does much more than a Shkrelian price-gouge to inflict his ideology on the world. Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) is a Bond villain whose main weapon is mansplaining. Forming a cult of his own against overpopulation, the constantly speech-giving Zobrist (even, as we see, on a coffee date and when having sex – really) is the catalyst for this franchise to spin away from Christianity and diversify into the future. It’s not just that Christian zealots and secret-keepers are bad: so are scientific fanatics. The consistent demonization of rote loyalty is particularly ironic in a film with so few distinguishing features from its competitors.
Yet Inferno has the most fun with itself than any of the Symbology Series. Considering Langdon’s extraordinarily broad field of study (Symbols and icons? Great, so everything?), the focus of previous entries in the series on religious patriarchy was a potentially interesting thematic trend. Now that the series has done away with that examination and moved on to more Bond-like endeavors, there’s no more coyness about the sexism.
A constant cycle of pretty young sidekicks is never a good thing, especially as Hanks gets older and they, as said in Dazed and Confused, stay the same age. That they’re consistently used by the men in their lives is even worse.
For her part, Jones – and Hanks for that matter – are admirable in their attempts to stay lively, but neither have characters written for their strengths. They’re best when tiredly bewildered by their circumstances in a quiet apartment rather than National Treasure-ing all over creation. It’s just not written at that level of riotous fun.
The real star of the film, milking his every line and stealing his every scene with a bemused self-awareness, is Irrfan Khan as a private security worker. He’s so absurdly dry in reaction to the madness around him that he earns more pathos in his brief time with us than Langdon has in three movies.
Since Langdon saves the day and continues to hack through the plot thickets crafted by Dan Brown and his adapters, we’ll likely see another one of these films. And it could be worse, as it feels like it’s getting closer and closer to embracing its destiny as series featuring what essentially amounts to a grown-up boy detective. After about the fourth twist, Inferno becomes sort of fun in a schlocky way, despite the tone remaining steadfastly serious. It’s hard to take it as seriously when Hanks is reciting etymological facts rather than punching his way through a horde of square-jawed government agents. Leaning in to this silly, nerdy disjointedness produces the film’s strongest points, but I’m afraid the franchise and its professor will continue to learn all the wrong lessons.
Brown’s villains may no longer be with the church, but they’re still errant preachers. As long as these riddles are solved with the same self-seriousness as our hamfisted action movies, they’ll continue to be as boring as the jocks’ entries in the science fair. By refusing to play to its strengths, Inferno continues to damn the tenure of Hanks’ Langdon.