Here's the third futile attempt by director Ron Howard to turn the bestselling claptrap of author Dan Brown into something watchable. He comes close, but not close enough. This time Robert Langdon, the Harvard symbologist played as if against his will by Tom Hanks, suffers from retrograde amnesia. Lucky guy – I can remember all too well how the film's plodding predecessors, The Da Vinci Code (2006) and Angels & Demons (2009), stubbornly refused to come to life. Howard, shooting in Florence and Istanbul, makes things look compellingly atmospheric. And Hanks is one of the most likable actors on the planet. But Inferno just lays there onscreen, pancake-flat and with no animating spark to make us give a damn.
Which is strange, since the fate of the world hangs in the balance in David Koepp's surprise-free script. Extremist billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster, a master at crazed stares) has decided there are too many people in the world. He's fired up to unleash a plague-like virus that will narrow the herd to a manageable few. Langdon can't let that happen: Who would buy Dan Brown novels with no herds around?
Dazed and confused, our hero wakes up in a Florence hospital, under the care of Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), wondering why he's even in Italy and why he has Jason Bourne disease. Something about a gunshot wound, head trauma, and clues that can be found in Botticelli's 15th-century painting The Abyss of Hell and Dante's Divine Comedy.
Bad guys and one nasty woman, a carabinieri named Vayentha (Ana Ularu), start chasing Langdon and the good doc. No romance here, for better or worse, though Langdon makes eyes with the age-appropriate World Health Organization director Elizabeth Sinskey (the most excellent Sidse Babett Knudsen of Westworld). They have a history, you see. And while your mind wanders trying to make sense of this gibberish, the great Irrfan Khan shows up as the Provost , the head of a consulting group that's up to no good. Happily, Khan chews into his villainous role like a ripe peach and gives Inferno a jolt of momentum that vanishes when he does.
What remains is a stilted travelogue with fancy art references. In one early scene, a character takes a swan dive off a picturesque belltower. The fall, like everything else in this series of pretty pictures posing as cinema, is shot magnificently by Salvatore Totino. Still, there's something wrong with a movie that makes you envy a squashed corpse.