Close on the heels of his deeply felt Sully and terrifyingly dorky “David S. Pumpkins” on Saturday Night Live, Tom Hanks takes his art down a peg with another paycheck performance as the dramatic cipher Robert Langdon in Inferno, Ron Howard’s mostly lame adaptation of Dan Brown’s wholly lame novel.
I have no prejudice against Brown and think the cartoon I once saw on the internet featuring The Da Vinci Code floating in a toilet bowl while one piece of shit says to the other, “There goes the neighborhood,” is ... well, hilarious. But kind of unfair. Brown’s breakthrough, a conspiracy thriller that exploited the wide gaps in our knowledge of Biblical authorship and Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, was a more than acceptable potboiler. In some ways, it did a better job of illuminating the insane inner lives of paranoiacs and religious zealots than a lot of investigative journalism. The other books in the series, though, don’t have the same vaulting credulity, and the writing remains barbarous. You can’t even call the novels formula hack jobs; Brown doesn’t have the skills of a good hack.
Inferno turns on amnesia. Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with a head wound and a pretty British doctor named Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) checking his vitals. He has no I.D. but as luck would have it, she knows who she is. She’s a puzzle enthusiast and once saw him lecture when she was a little girl. Before you can say, “What are the odds of that?” a female terminator in a cop uniform is blasting away at them, and suddenly the doctor and his patient are running through the streets, en route to various museums, tombs, and cathedrals in search of something very, very important relating to Dante, Botticelli, and overpopulation. Langdon has apocalyptic visions: rivers of blood, humans turned by plague into howling piles of flesh. Billions of lives are at stake. Maybe trillions.
In these Langdon movies, Howard does his best to make like a thriller director, but he doesn’t have the perversity, the killer instinct. Even when he’s doing good work, you feel as if you could duck out to the restroom and not miss anything important. The first part of Inferno — a long chase — is so simpleminded and the characters are so thin that it barely feels like a movie. Then, in a flash, the film goes from boringly simple to ridiculously convoluted. Good guys might be bad guys, bad guys good guys. Bad guys might be turning good — or staying bad. Borgen’s Sidse Babett Knudsen plays Langdon’s old girlfriend, who may or may not be trying to kill him. Who knew the World Health Organization was so cloak-and-dagger?
The real surprise is that Inferno has a decent ticking-time-bomb climax in the bowels of an ancient Turkish labyrinth, helped by the presence of Knudsen (who can’t seem to get her Danish tongue around her lines in Westworld but seems more comfortable here) and Irrfan Khan, who’s so charismatic as a deadly private contractor that I was hoping he’d get his own spinoff. Khan commands, even when delivering drivel. But watching Hanks bummed me out. An actor without a role is a sad thing to watch, and Hanks isn’t the type to throw in some fruity Brando-like inflections or look like he’s trying to amuse himself. He’s not a comedian anymore. He’s a terribly earnest fellow, and he’s bent on serving the terribly earnest Ron Howard, who’s bent on serving this terrible material. Their symbiotic blandness eats into your brain. Together with Dan Brown, they might have inadvertently discovered the tenth circle of hell.