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Inferno: The Ninth Circle of Tom Hanks’s Hell

The actor may be a beloved Hollywood legend, but the films based on Dan Brown’s novels should be left out of his pantheon.

Columbia Pictures / Jonathan Prime

Tom Hanks has long been a Hollywood institution, a reliable leading man capable of delivering impassioned, noble performances in films like Philadelphia and Sully. A two-time Oscar-winner, beloved presence on the talk-show circuit, and as the host of Saturday Night Live, Hanks is the one movie star that just about everybody respects and likes—a great actor who, at 60, and even after decades of stardom, still feels like a regular guy.

What nobody mentions when they praise Hanks, however, are the dopey Robert Langdon movies, based on the bestsellers from Dan Brown. It’s a collective blind spot: We’ll keep loving him, and nobody mention those films, okay? A friend of mine who’s a massive Tom Hanks fan has seen everything he’s done—except for The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons. And when I asked others if they’d seen these action-thrillers it was remarkable how many of them had to actively think about it. They’re so unmemorable that the experience of sitting through them had simply flown out of their heads.

The third film in the series, Inferno, is an incredibly not-bad knockoff of Indiana Jones, with a dash of Jason Bourne by way of National Treasure. It’s so ludicrously serious there’s almost something charming about the film’s hyperventilating, page-turning fervor. But if the first two installments have been erased from our societal memory banks, there’s little doubt this one will disappear from our consciousness just as quickly. I can barely remember it now as I’m typing.

This sensation is, oddly enough, appropriate to the film, in which symbology professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up in a Florence hospital unsure how he got there or what he’s been doing for the last 48 hours. A local doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), tells him that he came in to the ER with massive head trauma and no identification—she only knew who he was because she’s read his books. Just then, an assassin (Ana Ularu) barges into the room to kill him. And thus, the chase is on, as Langdon and Brooks try to stay a step ahead of shadowy forces while he fights to recover his memory and piece together what’s going on.

Like the first two films, Ron Howard directed Inferno, and he and cinematographer Salvatore Totino opt for a stylish, slick, over-caffeinated approach that gives the film’s international locales a touristy glamour. Moving from Italy to Turkey, Inferno builds its mystery around the work of Dante, and how it relates to the nefarious plans of an enigmatic billionaire activist named Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). Langdon and Brooks unravel clues that eventually lead to the disovery that Zobrist has created a killer virus—apparently he’s obsessed with overpopulation.

For a movie about the potential death of billions, Inferno is a giddy thriller. In Brown’s novel the virus merely caused infertility, but screenwriter David Koepp has upped the stakes without any noticeable uptick in actual stakes. On its own ridiculous, meaningless terms, Inferno is a cornucopia of hacky plot gimmicks served up with shameless brio: Memory loss! Killer viruses! Secret underground organizations! Crazy character twists!

By any rational metric, the movie is complete nonsense. So it’s probably a good thing that Howard, Hanks, and everyone else involved conspire to ignore the story’s preposterousness and pretend they’re making a real thriller. Hanks plays Langdon like a fuddy-duddy James Bond who doesn’t have awesome gadgets, cars, or athleticism but, instead knows way too much about Dante. Inferno operates on the same childlike level that puzzle-solving games do: There’s a code to crack, and we get to experience the pleasure of attractive people figuring it out amidst chase sequences. This movie is never particularly ingenious—the best it can hope for is being mildly clever—but its lumbering forward motion does a decent job of simulating suspense and excitement.

The Hanks we see in Inferno has little of the actor’s famous wit or gravitas; it’s star power delivered without much distinction, a reminder to be grateful that he hasn’t done too many of these movies in his career. Hanks doesn’t come across as a guy who goes in for cash grabs—even the Toy Story blockbusters have a level of art to them very few franchises can match—but these Robert Langdon movies are the one ungainly exception.

But at least he doesn’t succumb to vanity: His character is surrounded by an international cast of superb actors. Jones conveys smarts and a whiff of seduction as this bright, capable doctor, while Omar Sy and Irrfan Khan are fun as very different men pursuing Langdon. As for Sidse Babett Knudsen, who also appeared alongside Hanks in A Hologram for the King, she brings a grownup, sexy melancholy as Langdon’s former lover who now heads the World Health Organization, though Inferno has no business digressing into a bittersweet tale of two old souls

I can’t say I liked Inferno, but its shabbiness has its own bizarre pleasures that have little to do with the execution and are entirely dependent on one’s tolerance for airport-novel pap. Maybe I was in a good mood. Or maybe my expectations were just that low. Either way, better we all forget it ever happened.

Grade: C+

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site