When I reviewed The Da Vinci Code ten years ago, I found the feature adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling novel beset with glacial pacing and a decidedly un-cinematic structure. Despite my many qualms, director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks (turning in his usual thoroughly reliable performance as Brown's hero, Harvard Professor Robert Langdon), certainly weren't among Da Vinci's problems. When the pair reunited three short years later for follow-up Angels & Demons (based on Brown's first Langdon novel), it seemed to mostly address the pacing problems of the previous installment, and I found it mostly engrossing (albeit mostly forgettable too).
So, two movies in, I was fifty-fifty on this series. And now, after an extended seven-year gap, Hanks and Howard are back once more for Inferno, an adaptation of Brown's 2013 novel of the same name. Featuring a script by David Koepp (going solo after co-writing Angels with Akiva Goldsman), this third entry boasts the usual panoply of ancient mysteries, elaborate puzzles, and beautiful travelogue shots of several European locales, but also gives a greater sense of who Langdon is as a character, filling in his backstory to the extent that we actually feel something for him beyond the normal fondness that Hanks effortlessly engenders.
As the film begins, Dr. Langdon lies in a hospital bed in Florence, Italy. Suffering memory loss following a concussion, he has no idea how he ended up in Italy, or why an assassin just showed up at the hospital trying to kill him. Making his escape with the help of Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), Langdon finds that he's in possession of the first in a series of clues pointing the way to a deadly virus (called "Inferno") set to be released in a matter of days, that will signal a cataclysmic, extinction-level culling of the human race. With his memory still on the fritz, Langdon must work with Brooks to find the virus, all the while evading the arrayed forces trying to capture and/or kill him.
As I said up-top, a big part of the charm for these movies is simply having Tom Hanks being dependably Tom Hanks. However, with the extended gap between the second film and this one, I was kind of surprised at how altogether welcome it was to see him slip back into this, his one and only franchise role. That Langdon isn't an action hero in the traditional sense, that he gets by on quick thinking and book smarts is also a pleasant switch from what we're conditioned to expect, and it also helps keep the character engaging even as the sixty-year old Hanks enters his second decade playing the character.
Speaking of Hanks' age, given the yawning chasm between the two players actuarially, I was also relieved that the filmmakers refrained from doing the usual Hollywood thing and playing Brooks as a potential love-interest for Langdon. That said, Jones does get plenty to do above and beyond her role as a sounding board for the professor (as well as those of us in the audience, natch). In addition to Jones, there are also memorable supporting turns by Omar Sy, Ben Foster, and the always-watchable Irrfan Khan, who's managed to build a heck of a career stateside these past few years in addition to his massive Bollywood stardom.
As to the whole ticking clock as we build-up to the climax, it pays off in a satisfying enough way (though if you're coming at this as a fan of the book, be warned that the entire third act is a massive swerve from the original). We've now had three Robert Langdon movies over ten years, and of those, Inferno is unquestionably the best. While it may not be particularly earth-shattering, or even stay with you once you leave the theater, it is a reasonable approximation of the kind of pulpy page-turner that keeps folks occupied in airport terminals as they await their flights. As Jones says part-way through the film, "It's nice to have you back, professor." It's weird how thoroughly I agree with that sentiment. B
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