‘Inferno’ Review: Tom Hanks Wheezes Through a Third Dan Brown Go-Round

Absurdity outweighs the thrills in Ron Howard’s lifeless three-quel, a movie that’s not at all good — but never so bad as to be entertaining

inferno ron howard

Reprising the character of Robert Langdon for the third time is obviously giving Tom Hanks sweaty nightmares: At the start of “Inferno,” he wakes up drenched, bloody and having flashbacks to some kind of medieval battle re-enactment. Why is he here, in this bed, with these tubes? That’s the city of Florence, Italy, outside the hospital window, he knows that much, but all recollection of having got there has been wiped from his memory — that’s the last time Langdon flies economy.

Suddenly, Felicity Jones is standing in front of him, saying she’s Dr. Sienna Brooks and that she’s been a big fan of his work since she was a little girl, but that he wouldn’t remember because he’s suffering “mild retrograde amnesia” after being shot in the head. We don’t have time to hang about to get the medical low-down on what Hanks’ hellish visions might mean because a gun-toting (yet slightly hot) female member of the carabinieri is arriving, leading Dr. Brooks and Professor Langdon to start running, embarking on a sort of mild, touristy jog that will see them through the rest of this epically tiresome movie.

In Dr. Brooks’ apartment we learn that Langdon has possession of a secret capsule thing (a “bio-tube, government issue, thumbprint-recognition enabled”) inside of which is something called a “Faraday pointer,” which projects an image of Botticelli’s Map of Hell illustration on to the wall. Only this image of Dante’s vision has been altered, some letters placed on various characters’ legs and heads. What could it be? “An anagram,” concludes Dr. Brooks. It’s clear these two puzzle pals are going to get along.

Soon enough that hot carabiniera is back, this time with an armed task force from the World Health Organization in tow, as well as some interesting Euro actors: Omar Sy as Inspector Bouchard, and Sidse Babett Knudsen (“Westworld”) as Elizabeth Sinskey, who may or may not have a previous relationship with Langdon.

A quick shower and the remarkable Langdon is off again, with the age-inappropriate Dr. Brooks, bunking over the wall to the Boboli Gardens, pursued by WHO drone. (Wait, I hear you ask, the WHO have guns and drones?) Sienna has recorded a fragment of Langdon’s rambling on her iPhone and, although it sounds like “Very sorry, very sorry,” he eventually works out that he’s really saying “Vasari, Vasari,” in reference to the artist who painted a fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio. Oh Langdon, you card, how did it take you so long?

Directing a Dan Brown adaptation for the third time (following “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons”), Ron Howard allows all manner of contrivances to pile up in David Koepp‘s screenplay, as if relying on constant reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy would make people think, “Ooh, this is clever stuff.”

“Inferno” isn’t just a Dante reference, however: it turns out it’s also the name of a killer virus that crazed technology billionaire Bernard Zobrist (Ben Foster, everybody’s go-to for crazy characters) has invented and is about to unleash on the world, a plague to wipe out billions of people and to save the planet from overpopulation. Except that Zobrist is actually now dead but Langdon and Sienna must yet dash off a few more locations — Venice, Istanbul — and other people must keep telling us there are only 12 hours, or 8 hours, or 15 minutes until the “deadly pathogen” is released.

Even so, there’s just time for Irrfan Khan (“Jurassic World”) to have some fun (nice to see someone enjoying themselves, at least) with his shady Provost character who sweeps in to explain away great gaps of plot, the plodding unpicking of which we then have to sit through, again, reminding us just how ridiculously dull the past two hours have indeed been.

Howard seems to have given up all semblance of directing by the climax, which is a flurry of close-quarter struggles in a red subterranean Turkish bath, with Langdon splashing about and tussling with some Turkish thug who can’t even beat up an amnesiac professor played by a wheezing Tom Hanks. Felicity Jones‘s dabbles with the thriller genre without her ever bringing much excitement, let alone actual thrills, to the proceedings.

“Inferno” has very little to recommend, its crushing dullness not even alleviated by laughable silliness. I kept hoping a Wayans brother would pop in and signal it was all one big genre parody, and when you’re fervently wishing for a Wayans, you know you’re in trouble.

Not scary, not funny, lazily-scripted, bafflingly plotted, devoid of tension and lacking any semblance of character development (not even good ol’ Tom Hanks can do anything interesting with Langdon’s self-absorbed pomposity), “Inferno” is stuck in a cinematic limbo, neither here nor there, not bad enough to be entertaining, but not good enough to admit how terrible it really is. If, as has occasionally been said, film critics reside in the eighth circle of hell, then Ron Howard‘s “Inferno” must be what’s screening in Purgatory.