‘Inferno’ Fails to Ever Start Burning

“Dante? Why is it always Dante?”

That’s a good question, Tom Hanks, and one I pondered as I left the Inferno screening. Why did Hollywood yet again indulge Dan Brown’s love of heaven and hell and churn out another generic action thriller based on one of his books? The obvious answer is that these films make money, but I do have to question their appeal. Inferno is yet another global espionage thriller wrapped in a Christian theology dressing so as to give it the veneer of something unique — yet it’s painfully bland and boring.

Based on Brown’s novel of the same name, Inferno follows Dr. Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) after he mysteriously wakes up in an Italian hospital with no memories of where he is or how he got there. Almost immediately, mysterious assassins ambush him. Langdon escapes the hospital with the help of his emergency room doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), and the two get caught in an international plot to unleash a virus that could kill half the world’s population, with Langdon at the center of it. He must work to recover his memories and figure out where the virus is hidden before it’s too late, all while evading multiple mysterious organizations that want Langdon and the virus for their own agendas.

Despite sounding like a 15-year-old’s bad National Treasure fan fiction written after a double feature of Batman Begins and Quarantine 2: Terminal, Inferno is anything but exciting. Espionage thrillers, especially those based on historical context, are rife with contrived plot points and over-extrapolated logic, but this film takes the cake for some of the most absurd logic leaps I’ve seen in a movie this year. Am I supposed to believe that an amnesia-inflicted Langdon can recall obscure Bible passages and the entire secret passage system of Venice but not what coffee is? It’s all remarkably silly and, though the film moves so quickly between plot points that you don’t have time to think about them, you’ll leave the theater wondering what the hell just happened.

A charismatic villain defines an espionage thriller, but the poor man’s Bond villain in Inferno is so lacking in presence that one wonders why he’s in the film at all. Putting aside the fact that Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) is only on-screen for maybe 10 minutes tops, his elaborate puzzle to the virus’ location is so needlessly convoluted that it’s a surprise his incompetent followers find it without his help.

Inferno’s biggest sin is the breakneck editing and bland visuals. Director Ron Howard’s steady hand from Apollo 13 and A Beautiful Mind is nowhere to be found here. Chase scenes and fight sequences are shot with such heavy use of shaky cam and unnecessary insert shots that it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of what is happening on screen. The climax of the film devolves into a messy underwater brawl in which the characters are indiscernible.

One might expect that a film heavily influenced by imagery of hell and the apocalypse would at least be interesting visually, but the lackluster computer-generated imagery (CGI) on display wouldn’t even cut it for a Doom game. CGI is perhaps one of the greatest cardinal sins for horror sequences, and Inferno commits it in spades. Bringing about a biblical apocalypse is a fascinating concept that would lend itself to truly horrific visuals like in Prince of Darkness, but Howard seems uninterested in indulging the horror side of his film, instead falling back on crime thriller cliches and long-winded exposition scenes to explain characters’ agendas. It’s a waste of great visual potential.

There isn’t much to say of the acting, as Hanks’ character seems to flip-flop personality-wise depending on how much of an amnesiac he is. Jones spends most of the film with a deer-in-headlights look on her face as she only exists to ask Langdon questions and look bewildered in response to their plight. The film’s one saving grace arrives in the form of Irrfan Khan as the mysterious chief executive officer of an international private security firm, but like the criminally underutilized Foster, he’s hardly in the film long enough to turn around the sinking ship.

In a cinematic world populated by the likes of the Bourne or Mission Impossible films, Inferno isn’t even up to par with the genre’s most mediocre. Rather than embrace its high concept premise and create a sense of fun and adventure, the film is so self-serious, conceptually ludicrous and grounded in reality that there isn’t any excitement to be found. Send this one back to the ninth circle of Dante’s Inferno where it belongs.

Grade: F

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