Tuesday, November 1, 2016

In Theaters: INFERNO (2016)

(US - 2016)

Directed by Ron Howard. Written by David Koepp. Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Omar Sy, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Paul Ritter, Paolo Antonio Simioni, Fausto Maria Sciarappa, Gabor Urmai. (PG-13, 122 mins)

We're pretty far removed from the publishing phenomenon of Dan Brown's breakout 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, the second installment in his series of Robert Langdon adventures. A world-renowned symbology professor and expert in religious and cultural iconography, Langdon is the hero of four Brown novels and three big-screen adaptations directed by Ron Howard and starring Tom Hanks: 2006's THE DA VINCI CODE, 2009's ANGELS & DEMONS (based on the first Langdon saga, published in 2000), and, seven years later, the belated INFERNO, from Brown's 2013 novel. While Inferno was the top-selling book of its year, it sold six million copies compared to the 80 million that Da Vinci moved a decade earlier. Likewise, interest in the cinematic Langdon has waned, with the $75 million budget a 50% slashing from the $150 million it took to make ANGELS & DEMONS seven years ago, the corner-cutting apparent in some cut-rate CGI work throughout. Everything about INFERNO feels like a contractual obligation. Howard does a serviceable job directing, and at least this is better than last year's bomb IN THE HEART OF THE SEA, but Hanks just doesn't seem very into this and was probably lured more by the prospect of a working vacation in Italy than any burning desire to go through the motions as Langdon one more time. Even in films that don't work, Hanks is one of the most effortlessly charismatic actors that the movies have ever offered. He was never the right choice to play Langdon but he made it work in the past. In INFERNO, he comes off as irritated and even a little tired, as if he really didn't want to do this, but was afraid he'd look like a dick if he said no.

In a set-up that couldn't be any more staggeringly silly if they'd ditched Langdon and had Hanks play David S. Pumpkins instead, INFERNO opens with a bloodied, amnesiac Langdon waking up in a Florence hospital with no recollection of what happened or how he got there. He escapes with ER doc Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) when assassin Vayentha (Ana Ularu) arrives dressed as a Carabinieri and starts shooting. Struggling to piece together the fragments of his short-term memory, Langdon discovers a small Faraday pointer/projector in a small biohazard tube in his jacket pocket. In it is an image of the Dante's Inferno-inspired Map of Hell painting by Botticelli. But the painting has been reworked, filled with letters and a cryptic message referencing billionaire American bioengineer Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), who committed suicide three days earlier. Prior to his death, Zobrist achieved a prophet-like following among his cult of admirers with his warnings that the world was suffering from overpopulation and that the herd needed thinning. With French agents led by Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy) and World Health Organization honcho and Langdon ex Dr, Elizabeth Sinskey (THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY's Sidse Babett Knudsen) in pursuit, along with the mysterious Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), a freelance "facilitator" hired by Zobrist but concluding that his employer had a screw loose, Langdon and Sienna venture from Florence to Venice to Turkey in search of a virus created by the deranged Zobrist, designed to infect 95% of the world's population and wipe out at least four billion people in the first week of its global exposure.

The kind of movie where a character in Florence announcing "We need to go to Venice," is followed immediately by an establishing shot of canals filled with gondolas accompanied by the caption "Venice, Italy," INFERNO, like its predecessors, has to constantly stop the action to drop tons of exposition that the characters should already know for the benefit of the audience. You could almost make a drinking game out of Hanks' Langdon exclaiming "Of course!" followed by something obvious to him that requires a paragraph of explanation to keep the audience in the game (and his emphatic "I need to get to a library...fast!" from DA VINCI is equaled here when he gasps "My God! This is a labyrinth!"). It's stilted and awkward and, as in DA VINCI and ANGELS, Howard and his screenwriter (in this case, veteran journeyman David Koepp, fresh off his MORTDECAI triumph) don't have enough faith in the audience to keep up on their own. It's hard to pick the most guffaw-inducing moment. It could be Langdon analyzing a recording of himself slurring an apology just after his head was injured, concluding "Of course! I wasn't saying 'very sorry'...I was saying 'Vasari!'" But it's the whole tangent with the Dante death mask that's probably where INFERNO completely falls apart, asking the audience to buy that a heavily-guarded museum could go an entire day without any visitors, curators or security personnel noticing that one of its key attractions has been stolen, and that it's been stolen by Langdon (who doesn't remember stealing it) and an associate named Ignazio (Gabor Urmai), who's promptly forgotten about and never mentioned again. This is a ridiculously dumb movie but it's got some scattered positives, with a game, scene-stealing Khan seeing this for the junk that it is and having more fun than any of his co-stars, and Romanian actress Ularu has some standout moments as the driven, ferocious Vayentha and would probably impress if given her own action thriller to headline. The best thing about INFERNO is the catchy, synth-driven score by Hans Zimmer that may sound like leftover cues from his brilliant work on INTERSTELLAR, but he does more to give this some energy and distinct flavor than anyone else except Khan and Ularu. Zimmer's score almost has a retro John Carpenter-meets-Philip Glass by way of Italian horror quality that's quite effective given the predominantly Italian setting. But at the end of the day, there's just no point to this coming out now, years after the Da Vinci Code craze has died and with a visibly disinterested Hanks just wanting to get to the vacation part of the package deal before starting work on SULLY, which was shot after INFERNO but released first.

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