My notes on Ron Howard’s Inferno (2016)
Dan Brown’s best-selling series, which kicked off with The DaVinci Code, has academic hero Robert Langdon run around mostly Italian locales solving trivia-quiz puzzles involving classical art and religious literature while pursued by dastardly baddies. At one point in the third of Ron Howard’s big, expensive films of the big, plodding books, someone suggests to Tom Hanks’ (temporarily) brain-damaged Langdon that he could just google stuff rather than rely on all that historical information stuffed into his head and Hanks gives them a really dirty look.
Other questions are left begging answers. Billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) wants to solve the problem of overpopulation by unleashing a genocidal plague to thin out the billions, but has tricked up a plastic bag full of the killer bug in an undisclosed locale which can be reached by following a trail of clues in an image of the inferno and written on the back of Dante’s death mask. Frankly, most genocidal billionaires would just have dropped the bug in the middle of a crowd and let the plague get on with it – and the rationale for Zobrist (Brown probably thinks he’s really good at character names) imperilling his supposed planet-saving design with a paper chase is beyond paper-thin.
If Langdon were in his right mind, even he might baulk at the foolishness of it all. He wakes up in hospital in Florence having forgotten how he got there from Massachusetts and hooks up with puzzle fan brainologist Dr Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to go on the run from a killer sexbomb (Ana Ularu, from Anaconda 4) in a fetish Italian cop uniform, the World Health Organisation repped by Langdon’s suited ex (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and determined ‘Christoph Bruder’ (Omar Sy), Zobrist’s relatively underpopulated (and no wonder) death cult, various civil and police authorities and a private security firm whose boss (Irrfan Khan) gets into the field with his sleeve-knives to clear up a mess. The runabout involves museums, sewers, churches and crowded streets in Florence, Venice and Istanbul as agonised Langdon – perhaps in distant homage to Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome, reminding us that he once made his own Inferno – imagines himself into mediaeval paintings depicting hell on Earth (people with their heads on backwards, etc) and various plague disasters. It’s just visual noise, if sometimes impressive.
A couple of big, annoying twists are well-telegraphed (the actors virtually wink while selling the set-up lines that pave the way for the rug-pulling) and it all boils down to interleaved rounds of cleverology and warmed-over Hitchcockian chase-and-fight stuff. It’s Howard’s achievement to make such uproarious tosh so dull onscreen – The DaVinci Code was a long illustrated lecture, but Angels and Demons had an evil Pope bungee-jumping out of an anti-matter implosion over St Peter’s Square and still wasn’t much fun. This is a step down from that.
But still, look at what a huge budget/proven franchise gets you – great locations (the ancient sewer-cum-modern-concert-hall in Istanbul where it all ends up is a stunner), pompous CGI fantasy imagery as classical paintings come alive (Ron Howard stays away from Bosch though) a massively overqualified supporting cast, Hans Zimmer’s score, Hanks wrestling with dialogue with furrowed-brow intensity and no one on the set throwing David Koepp’s screenplay into a ditch. Surely, it’s all over now.