“Inferno” is “Indiana Jones” meets “Mission: Impossible” meets retirement. Director Ron Howard and Tom Hanks (Robert Langdon) team up to make an unremarkable popcorn thriller that moves too fast for its own good. In the blur of action, the characters, motivation and twists all merge together in an unsatisfying blob of disappointment. The latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s series, though bursting with energy, is lacking soul.
Initially, the in media res introduction to Tom Hanks’ version of Langdon is tense and exhilarating. After waking up in a hospital with no memory of how he got there, Langdon must uncover the mystery behind the death of a radical billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a world-ending virus and Langdon’s connection to the case. The audience gets the pleasure of wading through the details with Langdon as he tries to piece together his failing memory. His defective memory adds a sense of urgency to early moments of the film. Yes, the amnesia cliche is not built upon in any meaningful way — but it makes for a thrilling start to the cookie-cutter mystery.
While the hectic atmosphere of the first 20 minutes makes for an exciting jumping–off point for the elaborate mystery, the high–octane jump cuts and blurred pans of Florence, Italy, quickly become exhausting. Action sequences that should brim with anxiety are over before they begin. Moments of discovery are marred by cutaways to one of the film’s half a dozen villains. Even the initially engaging hallucinations of a Dante-esque hellscape grow grating after the third or fourth foray into its fiery depths. That which was entertaining in the film’s early moments becomes dull by the midpoint.
Eventually, “Inferno” slows down. Before the climax kicks off, the viewer is given a moment to absorb and reflect on Langdon’s plight. Unfortunately, this is also an opportunity for the audience to realize that the mystery at the heart of the film is overly complex, uninspired and logically absurd. When allegiances are laid bare and motivations are revealed, the viewer can’t help but feel manipulated. The central mystery doesn’t make sense. Instead of simply executing his plan, the villain turns his world-saving endeavor into a cross-country farce — a sin made worse by the excessive cast of Langdon’s poorly fleshed-out adversaries.
“Inferno” runs the villain gamut: The film features morally corrupt billionaires, old love interests, selfish thugs, government agents and the eccentric leader of an underground organization. The end result is a muddled mess. The most interesting of Langdon’s foes, the elusive billionaire Zobrist, bites the dust within the first two minutes of the film. Zobrist is the only character in the entirety of “Inferno” with anything interesting to say, even though his philosophy is so obviously evil. When the climax begins, it is difficult to care because there are no characters for the audience to root for or against — not even Langdon.
The worst crime “Inferno” commits is that of an undeveloped protagonist. The “Indiana Jones” franchise is a classic because Jones himself is a cocky, lovable bastard who simultaneously demonstrates incredible skill and tenacity. Langdon is clever. He knows a lot about European art and history. He has no personality. He doesn’t grow.
As Langdon settles down after the explosive climax, he engages in a conversation with Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an almost-love interest from his past. The two have been glowing with a passionate tension throughout the film, but as “Inferno” ends, their emotional relationship remains static. They acknowledge that they should change, but don’t. Instead, Langdon settles in and readies himself for the next adventure.
“Inferno” leaves one question in the viewer’s mind: Why? Why did this adventure need to happen? Why do any of these characters matter? The audience members are left with the disorienting suspicion that they have been duped — and not by a complex plot or engaging moral questions, but by a lack of depth. Sitting through “Inferno” is by no means a hellish experience, but neither is it a heavenly one. Instead, it bears the stagnant familiarity of purgatory.