For readers of Dan Brown’s novels, the announcement that Ron Howard would be skipping the third novel in the Robert Langdon series and moving straight to ‘Inferno,’ the fourth, was welcome news. The neglected book, appropriately titled ‘The Lost Symbol’ was a laughable mess that exacerbated Brown’s flaws as a writer, pitting our hero against a villain, tattooed from head to toe, in a frantic chase to locate 1) an undercover video of a benign Mason ceremony and 2) a mystery McGuffin that turns out to be, ultimately, a King James Bible.
Not a Bible with a special message inside, or a map to some pseudo-fantastical discovery, just a plain old Bible. Genesis to Revelations. Available for $10.38 with free shipping on Amazon Prime.
Oh and Langdon dies, spoiler alert, except he doesn’t, in one of many eyeroll-inducing attempts at faking out the reader.
Compared to that misfire, ‘Inferno’ was a welcome quasi-return to form, falling short of the thrills of ‘Angels and Demons’ and the lesser-but-more-popular ‘Da Vinci Code’ but offering a satisfactory page-turner for long airplane rides or afternoons by the swimming pool.
But it’s still absurdist, pseudo-intellectual pop literature, with more than a little bit of ego masturbation by its author, who crafted a fantasy proxy so glaring in his womanizing, tweeded Langdon that it rivals Woody Allen for self-aggrandizement.
Howard, and star Tom Hanks, are able to smooth some of those edges, adding some maturity to the goings-on and focusing on the puzzles and pistols more than the buxom brunette that Langdon is paired with for the current adventure. But it’s hardly enough, as ‘Inferno,’ like its predecessors, can barely drum up the energy to explain that convoluted and nonsensical plot that loosely connects the anagrams and scavenger hunts that make up the goings-on.
‘Inferno’ does score points for trying something new. It opens in a fog, as Langdon is recovering in a Florentine hospital from a bullet-graze to the head and concussion, which has wiped out his memory of the past 3 days. After regaining consciousness, he is plagued by apocalyptic hallucinations and before you can say “Alighieri” he is being shot at by a would-be assassin and forced on the run with the doctor who treated him (Felicity Jones, to be seen next in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’).
The film’s omni-chase structure, ostensibly, sends its protagonists through famed locales like the Boboli Gardens and Palazzo Vechio. The eye candy of Dan Brown’s settings is part of the charm of the franchise, and yet in ‘Inferno,’ Howard keeps his camera cropped tight, robbing any hope of architectural and historical eye candy. It’s likely a result of the actors being nowhere near the actual locales, but whether due to movie trickery or no its a wasted opportunity for what would otherwise be a glitzy romp through Florence, Venice and Istanbul.
There are high moments. The perpetually-underrated Ben Foster puts in good work as the de facto villain, a billionaire decrying overpopulation from the rooftops whose death sets the film’s plot in motion. And screenwriter David Koepp takes creative license from the source material, deviating from Brown’s more questionable choices and crafting a third act climax that delivers satisfactory tension when paired with Howard’s competent directing.
It’s almost enough, and certainly gets more mileage than the novel would suggest. And while it escapes cinematic hell, it lands far from heaven.
Inferno opens nationwide on Friday, October 28.