Inferno Movie Review – The Crystal Maze Across Europe

Inferno is another rushed Dan Brown adaptation with a striking sense of geography.

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster

Rating: 2.5 stars

For those not familiar with Dan Brown’s novels, director Ron Howard’s interpretation of the history-meets-mystery series (what I usually call “clue porn”) may often seem like futile speed-reading exercises. Like a schoolboy intent on out-pacing the volume of text passages, it doesn’t quite bare thrilling sounds of originality.

One can sense the ‘adaptation’ in them, especially when Tom Hanks (as the mind-faster-than-computer Professor Robert Langdon) often breaks into blank stares of rapid exposition, only to keep us at par with Brown’s audacity. To be miscast as the professor for three films in a row takes a special kind of ‘franchise’ mentality to accept. One can’t help but imagine Clive Owen or perhaps Michael Sheen in his shoes instead – fine actors who aren’t world-starry enough to have their personas override Langdon’s peerless acumen.

To be miscast as the professor for three films in a row takes a special kind of ‘franchise’ mentality to accept. One can’t help but imagine Clive Owen or perhaps Michael Sheen in his (Tom Hanks) shoes instead

 Usually, the hassled iconology expert gapes at hidden symbols and helpfully voices out his riddle-solving streams of conscience. Letters shine and numbers pop out of his mindscape; Howard’s visual handling of Langdon’s computations makes us feel very little.

The academic jargon rarely makes sense; I suspect his style of thinking seems more at place on the starched pages of a book. And usually, it’s always an equally intelligent and non-American lady chancing upon his perilous journey, listening to him rattle on and filling in the blanks. It’s no wonder he remains a bachelor. A disturbingly asexual (celibate?) one, at that.

These ladies don’t feel as patronized as they should, which is why British actress Felicity Jones’ Dr. Sienna Brooks is deliberately designed to be more than just a mobility scooter. And Howard just cannot help himself; he Hollywood-izes the socks off her, even meddling with the author’s vision to make Inferno just another pretty save-world-in-nick-of-time (in)action movie.

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Brown’s plot this time starts on a wishful spy-flick note. It presents a valid core of the ‘epidemic’ of overpopulation – and how brutal self-control, and possibly extinction, is the only idealistic way forward. One side fights for it, and the other against.

As one of 1.3 billion Indians, I can understand this concept. Somehow, the hellish essence of Italian poet Dante’s famous ‘Inferno’ is incorporated as the mandatory historical relic into this glorified treasure hunt.

For a smart guy, Langdon sure gets double-crossed and hoodwinked way too much even for a fictional character. Somehow, though, Dr. Brooks makes the ridiculously abused (film) condition, ‘retrograde amnesia,’ sound mildly believable on screen. All those pensive-looking doctors in Hindi cinema can take a leaf or three (or her eyes) from her book.

Langdon’s amnesia serves as a convenient device while they try to figure out how he wakes up in a Florence hospital and why three different sets of organizations are out to finish him. One of them, of course, is represented by the deadpanned coolness of Irrfan Khan. The last time he appeared with Felicity Jones in a big-budget franchise, their roles were brutally chopped off into blink-or-miss red herrings in the positively ghastly The Amazing Spiderman 2.

They’re out to make amends with Howard, and thankfully end up distracting us from Langdon’s distortive antics. Even by the end, I’m still left trying to figure out the specifics, but that’s not the point here. Every time they’re close to a dramatic crescendo, one can always count on Hans Zimmer’s rousing score to point you to the right emotion. He mixes it up initially, but eventually falls back on the series theme, incorporating familiar strings little by little into several that-escalated-quickly sequences.

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But the one thing I’ve admired about Howard’s forays into adapting literature and life is his sense of place. I’ve repeatedly watched Angels and Demons for how appropriately he integrates the city of Rome, and the Vatican – and often, most of Europe – into Brown’s globetrotting suspension of disbelief. Ditto for Paris in The Da Vinci Code. Here, it’s Florence by day, Venice by noon, and a striking Istanbul (which doesn’t look like it’s recreated in Budapest) by night.

Howard has the heart of an explorer, a traveler’s eye, that shouldn’t simply be content with urgent chase sequences, secret doors and defaced museums.

The mystery he communicates with a single night shot through his lens is the kind of tone often missing in his dull cardboard characters and their incoherent race against time. These locales aren’t simply picturesque or glossy tourist brochures; they breathe personality – and a fair amount of skill – into his rushed studio-burdened template. Even his fantastic F1 Hunt-Lauda biopic bore perfectly memorable scenes from retro Italy. Howard has the heart of an explorer, a traveler’s eye, that shouldn’t simply be content with urgent chase sequences, secret doors and defaced museums.

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Inferno may perhaps be the least convincing of the Brown trilogy to give the makers an excuse to explore Europe. Every such flick is inherently a B-movie, propping itself up on cheesy puzzles and protagonists who refuse to recognize the beauty of the countries they’re navigating (which is, perhaps, half the exotic intrigue). Its intellectual action isn’t a patch on the physicality of a Mission Impossible, Bourne or Bond series, but there’s still enough to make me feel like revisiting Istanbul in a different, more cinematic context. Without Langdon – and his charmless, dour and utterly uncool demeanor.

Its intellectual action isn’t a patch on the physicality of a Mission Impossible, Bourne or Bond series, but there’s still enough to make me feel like revisiting Istanbul in a different, more cinematic context.

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