5 out of 10
Tom Hanks as Prof. Robert Langdon
Felicity Jones as Dr. Sienna Brooks
Omar Sy as Christoph Bouchard
Irrfan Khan as Harry Sims
Sidse Babett Knudsen as Elizabeth Sinskey
Ben Foster as Bertrand Zobrist
Ana Ularu as Vayentha
Ida Darvish as Marta Alvarez
Paolo Antonio Simioni as Dr. Marconi
Fausto Maria Sciarappa as Parker
Gábor Urmai as Ignazio Busoni
Jon Donahue as Richard
Philip Arditti as Istanbul Professor
Mehmet Ergen as Mirsat
Directed by Ron Howard
It’s been said before, many times before, that the art of adaptation is capturing the spirit without being trapped by the letter. Film history is replete with movies which were far removed from their sources and were better for it. Sure, there are times when the source material is so well put together there’s not much to be gained deviating from it.
But more often an adaptation can take advantage of getting a second bite at the storytelling apple, taking advantage of strengths while doing away with weaknesses which may not have been visible the first time through. That’s particularly true when your source keeps telling the same story over and over, bringing the same problems along for the ride each time.
If you’ve read more than one Dan Brown book, and they sell well enough to suggest some of you have, then it should come as no surprise that Inferno it is the latest iteration of his story formula in ever meaning of the phrase. His hero-cum-alter ego Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon (Hanks) is brought into a mystery by an ominous, possibly government, force seeking some sort of MacGuffin at the end of a clue-strewn path that only he can decipher. In this case the life history of Dante Alighieri and his home in Florence, Italy which has been used as a guide to the aptly named Inferno virus which, if released, will wipe out half the Earth’s population.
He is pursued in his quest by assassins (Ularu) working from not-particularly-logical motives in order to keep him on his toes and is eventually betrayed by a close compatriot who turns out to be the main villain. Every Dan Brown book is like this and unfortunately so has every Dan Brown movie been. The lack of originality brings all of the flaws of the other Langdon stories back for another go round with the added benefit of the contempt of familiarity.
This has left returning director Ron Howard (In the Heart of the Sea) and screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park) stuck in a death trap more insidious than any Brown himself could have devised. The most insidious of the bunch is the requirement to have Langdon spend so much time with his eventual betrayer at the expense of more useful relationships.
This is the downside of any plot-twist set-up and its one the Langdon series has played with more than once, which suggests everyone involved (except perhaps Brown) should be aware of its downside. By keeping any sort of meaningful relationship developing between Langdon and other protagonists until the third act, it becomes too late to bother and certainly too late to care about potential third act jeopardy. [It doesn’t help that Langdon’s default mode is lecture, which makes Hanks frequently sound like a voice on a museum tour audio guide rather than the lead of an action thriller].
It supports the ‘what’s going to happen next’ mode of plot development that keeps people turning pages or from flipping channels – in theory. But once you’ve gone to that well so many times, it is painfully obvious what’s going to happen next – the gains are not worth the costs.
Howard and Koepp certainly seem aware of this as they seek to play around at the margins of Brown’s original story, which tends to be where the film’s few enjoyments are to be found. Mostly they come in the form of Irrfan Kahn as corporate spymaster Harry Sims.
Wry, unethical, but not amoral, Sims has all of Inferno’s best lines and Kahn is imminently aware of that fact. Playing him with just the right balance of sarcasm and forthrightness, every moment he is on screen makes it obvious a film about Harry Sims would have been much more entertaining than what we’ve got. In particular, watching Sims explain his changing allegiances throughout the film without the least sense of doubt, guilt or remorse is hilarious and nearly worth the price of admission.
It’s also quite beautiful and even enticing as a travelogue. Much like its predecessor Angels & Demons, Howard wisely seeks to leverage the quest through historical landmarks to its visual utmost. Italian cinematographer Salvatore Totino (who worked on both of the last two films) gives us a Florence and Venice bathed in golden sunlight and photographed to their utmost, like a model on a Vogue cover.
It’s all a waste, unfortunately; there’s no polish in the world which could clean up the rotten core at the center of the story. Only ditching much of Brown’s formula and charting a more original course could have saved this pedantic and overwrought potboiler, but no one’s willing to do that. For the most part all Inferno has to offer is a sense of missed opportunities and wasted time mixed with sudden desire to visit Italy.
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