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By Richard von Busack October 27, 2016
Ron Howard’s follow up to The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons is more interesting than its predecessors, though it’s just as preposterous. Tom Hanks is in a crazily non-linear adventure with hallucinations galore. Our two-fisted symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is struck with amnesia after taking a bullet to the head. He wakes up in Florence, tended by a British physician—that prodigy of art history and medicine, Dr. Sienna Brooks. She’s played by Felicity Jones of the petite stature, the rabbity overbite, and the antiseptic, no-nonsense quality of Julie Andrews in the spy movies Andrews occasionally made.
The trickery begins early, with an opening grabber: the escaping Zobrist is cornered atop a high Florentine tower, and he leaps for it. In life, Zobrist (Ben Foster), is a zillionaire with an agenda. In flashbacks we see that the dead plutocrat wasn’t just a wealthy TED-talker concerned about overpopulation, he was taking some action about it. He’s created a bioplague that’ll make some much needed elbow-room on this planet.
Unlike the first two Dan Brown adaptations, Inferno doesn’t confront religious belief. Langdon’s hallucinations of Dante’s sinners being tortured on the streets of modern-day Venice aren’t about sin, but about the horror to come if the new plague is unleashed.
The conspiracy is as essentially secular as the evil scheme in a Bond movie, though the 007-style components and scenery changes here don’t really fit together. Inferno may be twistier, faster, and less smothered with details than the first two Brown adaptations. But it’s always on the edge of real fun, and it never crosses over. Howard tries to keep it realistic when it might have been better to go crazier and richer.
And then the plot gets thicker, with the introduction of a SPECTRE-like “security group,” headed by Harry Sims (the international movie star Irrfan Khan), as well as investigators from the World Health Organization. All seem in pursuit of the same deadly vial, and Langdon has to parse egregiously-written clues concealed in objects d’art to find the virus where it waits in its final picturesque hiding place.
The second unit vistas have smogged realism to them—they don’t have the menace and the glory of the cityscapes in Bond movies. Snuffing the head villain Zobrist early takes a bit of fun out of Inferno. It exemplifies this movie’s innovations: the film is full of unusual ideas that, when tried, reveal why filmmakers generally don’t try them. The direction is unusually jagged and stuttery for Ron Howard; you’d almost credit the movie to Tom Tykwer. It’s certainly by the Howard who made Rush rather than the Howard who made Angels and Demons. Happily, David Koepp is the writer this time, not series regular Akiva Goldsman, a stand-and-deliver exposition scriptwriter of maximum staticness.
Howard goes to particularly crowded European destinations to prove the germ-warfare wielding villain’s point: to the plaza at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, to the old palaces in Florence, or to Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. All swarm with mobs of tourists. Still, despite Ben Foster’s impeccable moist-eyed fanaticism, wouldn’t this “herd-thinning” (as Zobrist calls it) be an older man’s insane scheme? Humans in their fifties remember the world as it was a few billion people ago, and might be more inclined to recreate it using a doomsday weapon. And there’s a passing swipe at young people by Sims, about how no one becomes interesting until age 35; this, in a movie aiming to please a young audience, cut as restlessly as a Bourne film.
Certainly, Hanks is far more interesting now than when he was on the sunny side of 35. If he’s eminently trustworthy, Hanks is also slightly frail—he’s not the kind of action hero you want to see knocked about, even upon the most culture-soaked Italian stones.
Inferno has a spurious Dante quote in it—the hottest place in hell is reserved for people who fabricate quotes, or words to that effect. When watching Hanks here, one thinks of another quote you could bend. It’s something said about God and humanity: we respect Hanks when he works but love him when he dances.
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