It seems amazing that, in the year 2016, we should find ourselves facing down another big-screen Dan Brown adaptation, but here we are. Where we are exactly can be gauged from the absence of pre-release buzz around Inferno, compared to the thunderous hype that preceded 2006’s The Da Vinci Code and 2009’s Angels & Demons. Everybody’s back solely because the beancounters insisted the numbers made sense, a decision reached while the western public were busy bagging up and consigning both those books and movies to damp charity-shop doorsteps.
Howard’s response to this glaring lack of urgency or necessity is to crank Inferno’s opening movement up some measure beyond 11. There’s barely a shot in the film’s first thirty minutes that isn’t subject to some grabby or fidgety effect; it’s like being reintroduced to a vague acquaintance whose opening conversational gambit is to start gibbering about the end of the world. It’s just about clear that Tom Hanks’s Robert Langdon is in Florence and in a bad way, by which I mean not just stuck in a third Ron Howard movie based on a Dan Brown book.
He is, rather, recovering from amnesia and having fiery visions involving rivers of blood, which suggests he’s spent his recuperation period mainlining Simon Heffer columns. At his side, glossy-locked doctor Sienna Something-or-Other (Felicity Jones) appears no less manic, given as she is to reordering her immediate surrounds in line with her OCD. You’d hope her superiors wouldn’t let her anywhere near surgery, but this is a character point quickly forgotten about once she nobly abandons her post to get Langdon out doing whatever it is he’s been doing for the best part of two movies.
One clue to our guy’s fragile state is the biostick he finds in his jacket pocket, a doohickey tweaked so as to shine forth a doctored image of Botticelli’s Map of the Inferno: “The circles of hell have been rearranged!” yelps Hanks, and so off we go again. If you enjoy microscopically low-level cosmic reordering, then Inferno – less event movie than third-rate pro-celebrity game show – could be the film for you: this is Howard pushing the now-established schtick of Hanks plus female sidekick running around taking surprisingly long to solve anagrams about as far as it will go.
Like last week’s The Girl on the Train, with its dire warnings against ending up tipsy and childless in the commuter belt, Brown’s work strikes me as inhabiting that strain of popular literature designed to exacerbate our fears about a world spiralling beyond our control. With its supporting cast of shadowy operatives, Inferno revels in the kind of conspiracy beloved of the alt-right: Howard inadvertently throws this lot a bone by setting mad billionaire Ben Foster’s tirades against population overload against images of Mecca’s pilgrims. (Boo! Too many non-Caucasians!)
Still, you cannot possibly take seriously a film that insists the secret backchannels of 14th century Florence palazzi have excellent wifi, obliges Jones to totter across rooftop-high wooden beams while wearing heels, and then asks the Oscar-nominated actress to maintain a straight face while delivering the immortal line “Are we in the wrong basilica?” (It’s not just you, my dear.) Howard once converted a Richard Price script into the authentic pulp of Ransom, but that career highlight/anomaly now seems a long time and several billion dollars ago.
He’s on bland megaplex mode here, which means no actual blood or guts, although he permits his actors – a motley crew, recruited to extend the film’s reach into international territories (Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen) – the odd moment to acknowledge this is a project some distance beneath their usual reading level. That all this nonsense is kept to exactly two hours makes Inferno less of a timewaster than its overstuffed predecessors; it doesn’t, however, make it any less of a waste of talent, creative energy or – perhaps most importantly – your hard-earned disposable income.
Inferno is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.