"Dante's Inferno isn't fiction. It's a prophecy." ~ Robert Langdon
“There is a switch. If you throw it, half the people on Earth will die, but if you don’t, in 100 years, the human race will be extinct. You are humanity’s final hope.” ~ Bertrand Zobrist
"Professor, you are having visions, aren't you?" ~ The Provost
"You won't be able to trust your own thoughts for awhile." ~ Sienna Brooks
“The greatest sins in human history were committed in the name of love.” ~ Robert Langdon
Conspiracies and chases through breathtaking Old World architecture abound as Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard return for Inferno, another adaptation of a Dan Brown novel. Following in the footsteps of The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, which featured troublesome authority figures, dark conspiracies, hidden truths contained in art, and an overly curious and knowledgeable American professional, the film returns to Europe for a country hopping exercise in preposterousness and high stakes poker. Well, not the poker, just the high stakes.
Having had taken a hand in deciphering Leonardo's great secrets and saving the Vatican in previous film outings, Robert Langdon (Hanks) finds himself waking up in an Italian hospital with no idea how he got there, and suffering of a head graze. The attending doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) informs him he was shot, which has affected his short term memory. Before he has time to even adjust, a woman (Ana Ularu) turns up armed and ready to kill. The two flee, following a trail that starts with an oddity among Langdon’s personal belongings that points the way to the works of Dante, a conspiracy that has global implications, a villain who’s gone and killed himself even before the first act starts, and shadowy forces whose agenda seems murky at best.
This is the third Robert Langdon outing in film, though the character has appeared in four books now, each time as the proverbial Smartest Man In The Room, able to figure out cryptic mysteries long hidden away in art, books, or aged documents. Dan Brown has made a bloody fortune off the character, who’s proven to be exceedingly popular since the second book of the series, The Da Vinci Code, became a runaway bestseller. That book and Angels & Demons got film adaptations from Howard and Hanks, though the third book in the series, The Lost Symbol, got passed over in favour of this most recent book, which follows the characters from Florence and Venice in Italy to its finale in Istanbul, Turkey. It’s been seven years since we last saw Hanks in the leading role.
David Koepp, who has many screenwriting credits, as well as directing credits to his name, previously co-wrote Angels & Demons as an adaptation, so this is his second time around with Langdon. The adaptation makes some significant departures from the source novel, particularly in the second half, telling a tale of a biological weapon and a madman who thinks he’s doing the right thing for the world- even if there’s some sense to the root cause, what with overpopulation being a real issue. Unlike the previous books and films, which stressed old secrets hidden away by secret societies in various odd places, this story has a more contemporary thread in its conspiracy, even if it makes use of old creative outlets and artistic sensibilities.
The preposterousness that’s standard to a Dan Brown plot is there, of course, along with the plot holes. Also returning are some of the standard Brown operating procedures: shifting allegiances, authority figures who might be on the side of the right or wrong, the highly intelligent young female counterpart to Langdon, and the broad conspiracy theories. The formula might seem a bit well worn by now, what with having had seen it already play out before. The pacing of the film itself seems rather frantic, and deeply convoluted at times. Of the three films, this one doesn’t work as well as its predecessors (particularly Angels & Demons), perhaps because of that frantic, convoluted pace, and because it’s following already familiar territory. And I found myself a bit irritated by the villain’s entire plan- why not just release the damned virus instead of going through this whole elaborate, grandly staged scheme? The notion ends up coming across rather like a Bond villain- only there, you expect that sort of grandiosity out of the villains.
Howard filmed on location, some of that being in Florence and Venice, but also on sets in Hungary, substituting perhaps for Turkey, which, let’s face it, isn’t exactly friendly territory for filming these days. He’s already well familiar with the world of Robert Langdon, the incessantly curious academic with a tendency to find himself wrapped up in mysteries and hidden secrets; the films mark his only actual film franchise, since his directing work has usually been self contained stories. He films at times both in the frantic chase style that the story requires, but also like he’s doing a travelogue, looking at places you’d love to get a look at yourself- if not for the fact that his characters are being chased by one dangerous lunatic or another. He does what he can with what he’s got- Inferno as a source material isn’t quite up to the entertainment reading value of the first two Brown novels- and ends up bringing out a film that’s at least a capable, if not quite as satisfying, follow up.
The cast are well chosen. Ben Foster appears only briefly as the villain, playing Zobrist as a man who entirely believes in himself and his cause, and damn the consequences. There’s something inherently dangerous, charismatic, and unhinged in the man, but he believes he is absolutely right, and that his path is the only path to follow. It reminds one of a cult leader, without the cult. Omar Sy appears as Christoph Bouchard, an official who turns up as the story goes along, and ends up playing to the what's his real agenda aspect of most of the characters in the film.
Ana Ularu is a Romanian actress, and she finds herself following in the footsteps of Paul Bettany and Nikolaj Lie Kaas before her, playing the profoundly dangerous henchman, the immediate threat to the protagonist. She certainly impresses in that job, as the actress conveys a thoroughly ruthless, efficient energy to the performance, coming across as a credible threat on screen.
Irrfan Khan is best known to audiences in India as an actor, but he’s done some work in Hollywood, including last year’s Jurassic World. Here he plays a character nicknamed The Provost, the head of a private security concern whose allegiances shift as the story goes along, from working on behalf of a client to coming to grips with the fact that his client is a monster. It makes for a rather interesting take on the character, less clinical than the character was in the book.
Sidse Babett Knudsen is a Danish actress, playing a pivotal role for the film, Elizabeth Sinskey, head of the World Health Organization (though we must wonder why the WHO has officials who run around with weapons). The character is desperately racing against time to contain a crisis, and like others in the film, we are left to wonder for a time at her own agenda. The character is an interesting one, with some history with Langdon, and the actress gives the character a sense of gravity and resolve as she goes along.
This is only the third project I’ve seen Felicity Jones in. She had a blink and you’ll miss it appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and appeared in Julie Taymor’s adaptation of The Tempest (which I absolutely hated- honestly, Shakespeare should come back from the grave and sue her for that). The actress appears next in the Star Wars one-off tale Rogue One next month. Here she plays the highly intelligent young partner by circumstance of Professor Langdon, but she too has her own secrets, which take her in different directions from the character’s place in the books. She certainly conveys the intelligence of the character in just the right way.
Tom Hanks returns once more as Professor Langdon. He brings to film the sense of curiosity and intelligence so integral to the character, which is a good thing. Langdon is a wellspring of information and arcane knowledge, and here he finds himself in a situation where his memory, one of his greatest gifts, isn’t quite reliable, which gives him a reason to be shaken up. He’s also shaken up by the stakes of the story, which go rather beyond what has come before. Langdon’s curiosity, even in the face of danger, does make him an interesting character, and Hanks plays to that. Being an already established character helps (as does being played by Hanks)- we’re generally already on his side and sympathetic to him. Hanks does have that history of playing characters we can at least empathize with; though personally I will never, ever, ever empathize with Forrest Gump, a character I would rather see wiped out of existence for all time.... did I mention I hate double infinity hate Forrest Gump? Fortunately this character is a world away from that loathsome irritant, and while he seems decidedly perplexed by the situation he’s in, it’s good to see him again.
Inferno doesn’t measure up to its predecessors in the series. For me, Angels & Demons with its high stakes and countdown to an awful thing happening tone works best as a film. This adaptation, with its plot holes, is treading ground we’ve already seen before, and does tend to be rather frantic and convoluted as things go along. Still, as long as you ignore the plot holes, the film works well enough, giving us another Langdon caper that also serves as something of a travelogue.
A travelogue, mind you, with bullets and deadly bio weapons.