Dan Brown has a lot to answer for. While he didn’t exactly create the conspiracy thriller, he certainly popularised it for this century with the massive success of his 2000 novel Angels & Demons and its 2003 sequel, The Da Vinci Code. Its film adaptation led to countless imitators, not least of which was the National Treasure series. It’s been 7 years since the last Robert Langdon adventure, and while the world wasn’t exactly clamouring for another outing, here it is.
Suffering horrific visions of hell on Earth, Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a Florence hospital room with no memory of how he arrived in the country, or why there are people out to kill him. Attending doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) helps him to escape, but they soon find themselves embroiled in an art world puzzle that is connected to Betrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a charismatic influencer who is totally into Malthusian population control.
The logic of the puzzles that make up the “secret code” genre require a fairly straightforward narrative. The clues can’t be so easy that there’s no challenge for the leads, nor can they be so tricky that the audience couldn’t figure it out without a little help. INFERNO takes the frustrating middle ground, deliberately obscuring key pieces of information due to Langdon’s memory loss, but laying the mostly Dante related clues on thick and fast to create the illusion of intellect.
Hanks has been playing this version of himself so long that he could probably do it in his sleep, and while we’re not suggesting that he sleepwalks his way through INFERNO, he definitely spends a fair bit of it drifting in and out of consciousness. Yet the bigger issue is with the characters around him, who are merely perfunctory plot puppets, positioned to prolong the pace of the piece. Jones is particularly problematic, all too willing to go along with the events, which either indicates she is in on the conspiracy or a little bit dense. Meanwhile, priceless artifacts are either readily accessible or wantonly destroyed, meaning that there’s no sense of challenge to the various stages. The glorious shots of Europe are routinely squandered on the “nausea cam” used to show Langdon’s altered state as he druggily stumbles across the continent.
INFERNO isn’t a terrible thriller, it’s just not a terribly ambitious one. Ron Howard’s presence is barely felt, perhaps as a contractual obligation to the series. More disappointingly, it doesn’t even play to its own strengths, especially not the award-winning cast that includes Omar Sy and Irrfan Khan to name a few. The only real puzzle to be solved is how many more conspiracies can be squeezed out of gallery.