After “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” who would expect “Inferno” – the latest movie to be adapted from novelist Dan Brown’s series of thrillers about globetrotting Harvard symbologist Robert Langdon – to be anything other than schematic, silly and slightly chaotic?
In those movies, we watched as Langdon (Tom Hanks) ran from one scenic international site to another, trying to solve puzzles that had been left for him at art-historical landmarks, turning the experience of moviegoing into a vicarious, somewhat brainier version of an urban scavenger hunt.
The new movie, which is based on the fourth and most recent of Brown’s Langdon books, takes us from Florence to Venice to Istanbul, as our hero follows a trail of intellectual bread crumbs that has him hopping walls at the Boboli Gardens, inspecting the bronze horses on the facade of St. Mark’s Basilica and jumping into the waters of the “Sunken Palace” cistern beneath Hagia Sophia. It is everything one might imagine a Langdon adventure to be: predictable, absurd and mildly confusing.
More unforgivably, it is also plodding, unrelentingly dull, as narrative and visual travelogue.
Returning director Ron Howard gets no mileage from the tale’s picturesque settings, turning them into a rote slide show of someone else’s whirlwind European vacation. Only the post-apocalyptic visions that spring from Langdon’s fevered imagination – after he wakes up in a Florence hospital suffering from head trauma that has left him amnesiac for 48 hours and hallucinating – are the least bit watchable. And writer David Koepp, who also adapted “Angels & Demons,” fails to find room in the screenplay for wit, despite self-aware jabs at Langdon’s reputation as a stuffy old blowhole.
“You talk too much,” says a former love interest (Sidse Babett Knudsen), accurately. At another point, the young doctor (Felicity Jones) who rescues Langdon after an assassin (Ana Ularu) starts shooting at him in his hospital bed jokes about his old-school research methods.
“Copy of the book?” she cracks, after Langdon suggests digging up a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” to solve a clue left by a colleague. “That’s quaint. I use Google.”
Other than that, “Inferno” takes itself way too seriously, even for a movie in which the quarry is a ticking time bomb in the form of a virus that, once unleashed, will kill half the planet.
As Langdon and his new doctor friend dart about Europe in search of the bug, which was engineered by a deranged biotech-wiz named Zobrist (Ben Foster), they’re pursued by a swarm of others. These include a team of commandos from the World Health Organization led by a man with questionable loyalties (Omar Sy) and a shifty operative (Irrfan Khan) from a mysterious organization with ties to Zobrist and the hospital assassin. At least Khan, whose character carries a knife up his sleeve like a James Bond villain, seems to be having fun.
There is one surprising plot twist, for those who haven’t read the book. Those who have, however, will probably be disappointed that Koepp has altered the novel’s dark climax – which is rendered as a jumble of unengaging action and incoherent fight choreography – rather significantly, in ways that cater to populist sentiment about happy endings.
Say what you will about Dan Brown’s books. They may be, as some have noted, poorly written, formulaic and pretentious. But at least they hold a reader’s attention, in ways that this excursion – as sleep-inducing and rigidly predictable as a train ride – does not.
One and one-half stars. Rated PG-13. Contains violence and crude language. 121 minutes.
Ratings Guide: Four stars masterpiece, three stars very good, two stars OK, one star poor, no stars waste of time.