“We’re a minute to midnight”
America loves popcorn thrillers as much as Hollywood and that suits Dan Brown fine. Having Ron Howard and Tom Hanks take an interest in his character Robert Langdon definitely helps too, but the “bestseller” label would have been enough if lesser names attached instead. Whether or not Brown anticipated his professor’s pop culture appeal to ensure each installment was a solitary unit (the initial adaptation, The Da Vinci Code, was actually Langdon’s second entry) is something only he can answer, but it’s served him perfectly nonetheless. This is how Angels & Demons can be retrofitted into a sequel (though it could have stayed a prequel without anyone noticing) and why a lengthy gestation for converting third novel The Lost Symbol continues while Inferno‘s book four hits theaters first.
My knock on Da Vinci Code—a novel I enjoyed like most—was that it was too exacting an adaptation. Howard and company sucked the life out of it by externalizing all of the great revelations Langdon (Hanks) makes in his mind. It felt as though we were sitting in a classroom being lectured to rather than on an insane adventure full of danger. I’ll assume Angels & Demons followed suit considering the film was hardly inventive in any visual way, but I purposefully didn’t read the book to see if my enjoyment increased without something for which I could compare the onscreen action. It worked to a point. I had a lot more fun with Howard’s second film even if it wasn’t immensely memorable.
I can say the same about the single Brown novel I read because while I remember liking it, conjuring any detail beyond Langdon inevitably saving the day is impossible. The author’s writing is escapist fluff we read super fast, paperbacks for airline trips to pass the time with some exhilaration and rudimentary art theory between naps. These stories are tools for tourism if nothing else, Cliff’s Notes of architecture, artwork, and history to keep in the back of our minds should we ever find ourselves traveling the world on vacation. And Inferno continues this trend with its core plot surrounding Dante. We see Florence, Venice, and Istanbul: their cathedrals, museums, and off-the-beaten path attractions. It’s all so beautiful if only the police weren’t mucking up the scenery.
This is unfortunately the fatal flaw in seeing Langdon’s travels brought to life as anything resembling a plausible endeavor. He’s a professor of symbology. He’s the kind of guy whose eyes light up upon discovering something new despite a look of exasperated disappointment in himself for not seeing it sooner. And when he’s made to talk out his internal monologues for an audience (you and me) he becomes the biggest pendant the world has ever seen while the women he’s paired with (Felicity Jones‘ Dr. Sienna Brooks is this year’s model) find him charmingly pleasant no matter age gaps or strictly platonic boundaries. For whatever reason, though, Brown prays we accept him as a badass underneath his nerdom that leverages his fight or flight reaction for survival.
With Inferno being the most action-heavy of the three films thus far, this incongruous convenience feels even more outrageous. It’s a shame too because I was having a grand old time for the first two-thirds. Howard and screenwriter David Koepp finally infuse the story with some intrigue thanks to the notion that Langdon was shot and left suffering amnesia in a cab. Not only does he not remember the past forty-eight hours, he’s also having nightmarish visions of a veiled woman and human monsters tortured in some kind of Hell on Earth. Having these visual bursts of death and destruction make everything else that much more captivating because we’re solving a puzzle left by madman Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) as well as that of Langdon’s mind.
Zobrist’s extremist has created a virus to cull the herd and stop overpopulation. To save the species he will initiate genocide. This disease is what’s on the other end of the international labyrinth race sparked by a Faraday pointer of Botticelli’s Map of Hell and Langdon isn’t the only one searching. There are also two World Health Organization agents in Bouchard (Omar Sy) and Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen)—who may or may not have the world’s wellbeing in mind—and private security firm czar Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan) with an agent on the ground (Ana Ularu‘s Vayentha) ready to murder Langdon on sight. At least one of them will be revealed as being on the side of reason, but discovering who proves as elusive as the virus.
There are a ton of contrivances forcing us to question the loyalties of those we believe are beyond reproach, but that’s part of the fun. Langdon is unsure of anything so he’s as helpless as we are. No longer a pedant, he’s a pawn along for a ride of which he only has bits and pieces to parse together. Suddenly his memory returns, truths cement, and a couple more twists arrive to shock and awe. But they only do that if they’re left alone. Sadly the filmmakers have no faith in our ability to pay attention and decide instead to slow everything to a crawl for flashbacks and monologues to fill us in on what we’ve already guessed. Momentum is destroyed as an outlandish climax is set in motion.
I often wonder why Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child‘s Agent Pendergast hasn’t earned cinematic glory (he was written out of The Relic) because the similarities to Langdon are vast besides occupation. Aloysius Pendergast is an FBI Agent and therefore trained to do things Langdon cannot in the field. It’s not like the professor ever gets a law enforcement sidekick either, he must simply luck his way through escaping gunshots and foot chases he’s not necessarily bred for. Sorry, but Langdon is no Indiana Jones or even Noah Wyle‘s The Librarian who we see train and prepare for just these things. He’s more or less a regular guy who proves unflappable during conflict and possibly a cat considering his multiple scrapes with certain death. Pendergast would be believable where Langdon isn’t.
But our universe is one where Dan Brown gets the glory and Hollywood cashes in on America’s delight for escapist fiction. To me Inferno the film falls in between the more-or-less exciting Angels & Demons and the drab Da Vinci Code while rounding the trio out as a consistently mediocre series of escapades. If you like one, you’ll like them all. And to those who don’t, the opposite is true. Sometimes things are dull and others absolutely cartoonish (Khan is the best part of this installment even if his character seems ripped from a corny James Bond spoof). Put them together and you have a modest box office success, middling critical consensus, and content smiles on satisfied faces that hoped to avoid heavy intellectual lifting on Friday night.
 Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Jones) run for their lives through Boboli Gardens in Columbia Pictures’ INFERNO. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Prime COPYRIGHT: © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Irrfan Khan (HARRY SIMS) and Tom Hanks (ROBERT LANGDON) in Columbia Pictures’ INFERNO. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Prime COPYRIGHT: © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.
 Bouchard (Omar Sy) catches up with Langdon (Tom Hanks) and Sienna (Felicity Jones) in the Baptistry in Columbia Pictures’ INFERNO. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Prime COPYRIGHT: © 2016 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.