Author Dan Brown cracked the template of success amidst the bosky of financial turkeys he churned out initially. Set stories in a 24-hour template, add dollops of historical scientific documentation, real-life dark societies and their practices, and cults; add to this mix modern technology, the works of venerated Renaissance artists or scientists, a test-tube of villainy that threatens present day mankind, and you have a burgeoning bank account and a ticket to Hollywood. This is not to say that Brown’s formula isn’t ingenious. When he first broke writing ground with this approach in Angels & Demons, he made a ripple the size of a micro-circle. But with The Da Vinci Code, the author struck oil, and also re-invented the tourism industry. He also fracked interest in history so successfully, there’s now The Da Vinci Code tours in Rome, London, and Paris; and as proof that success is an all-submersive phenomenon as opposed to an isolated burst of Illuminati, Angels & Demons transmuted into a blockbuster novel as well, and you can enjoy Rome and Italy tours for this novel while you’re at it.
The protracted point being, the Dan Brown modus operandi isn’t all that bad. To me, The Lost Symbol was a faint photocopy of it, though. With Inferno, the successor to The Lost Symbol, Brown revved up the adrenalin again, and seemed more on track in his zone. And director Ron Howard, back at the helm after The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, had his work cut out – make Inferno explode. And that he does. With screenplay by David Koepp, Howard borrows a cinematic leaf or two from Paul Greengrass’s Bourne trilogy. And why, you well may ask. And why not, I well may answer. For, Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital, all IVd up and connected to frantically beeping monitors, and a camera vision that fades in and out with the anxiety of an about-to-propose bloke to the prom queen. On his side is his memory that’s foggy at best, and erased for the last 48 hours, at worst. That’s a good thing if you’ve had a nasty fight with your spouse or your mother-in-law’s come to stay, or both. Or if you’re Jason Bourne. In Langdon’s case, you know it’s far more sinister than an outlaw of a relation. And even as Langdon realizes he’s nowhere near Cambridge, but in Florence, Italy, he has a nightingale, Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), who helps him escape the hospital, as the scene explodes into a shocking gunfire ground.
Director Howard keeps the first hour of Inferno zinging at a breathless pace, not giving you a chance to blink or breathe. He uses some sharp editing snips with Dan Hanley and Tom Elkins to sear your senses with action that zips and ricochets, as if a bullet in a concrete maze. Plus, in line with Dan Brown’s fetish, he clips in eerie images from Dante’s nine circles of hell, that burns as much into your senses, as much as it does Langdon’s. Plus, there’s the murderous police officer, Vayentha (Ana Ularu) who constantly has Langdon in her cross-hairs, and as you discover a little later, is being controlled by The Consortium and its head, Harry Sims/The Provost (Irrfan Khan). The Consortium, in turn, is working for a now-dead transhumanist scientist, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster). Langdon is also being pursued by the W.H.O folks, primarily its head Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Christoph Bouchard (Omar Sy), head of the SRS team. And he and you can’t understand why everyone wants him – and no, it’s not because they want his barber’s number – but the answer lies in Dante’s Inferno and his description of hell. One thing is clear. You don’t know who’s on the historian’s side, and things get more complex as he begins to regain his memory, bit by bit. All this is good, rollercoaster fun.
The problem begins when Langdon’s dregged brain dissipates into its sharp self, and you simultaneously begin to see things more clearly. And what you see are holes. Plot holes that might have inspired Dante to add a tenth circle in his poem to describe untied, loose, and unexplained plot-lines that weave in and out of the movie, seemingly frontispiece distractions to slip you the big reveal at some point. Director Ron Howard does direct some stunning scenes – the death in the Palazzo Vecchio a gasp-inducing fall of your breath. He begins the movie with another wondrously morbid and voyeuristic fall that’s shot absolutely spectacularly. The director also cinemascapes some beautifully constructed scenes of Florence that’s sure to make you click on your travel website. Where he flails is toward the end, where he ties up loose ends with forced ease and you realize that those tiny, squiggly things sticking out are the loose ends and unexplained plot contrivances that remain just that.
The cinematography by Salvatore Totino is breathtakingly outstanding, as is the superb editing by Hanley and Elkins. Hans Zimmer composes a background score that’s simmeringly dark. The sound and music effects are random, frighteningly disorienting and very effective. For the action and chase sequences, Zimmer employs bouncing, up-tempo Kraftwerk-ish synthesizers. In the Palazzo Vecchio, when the camera swoops from Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones up to The Battle of Marciano, the composer gets in a sudden shot of thin, eerie chorals that make your hair stand in delight. Again, when the pair lands up in front of the Horses of St Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Zimmer uses thicker, male chorals that are another addition to his gourmet of pieces that stun.
If Inferno isn’t laughably corny toward the end with its predictable save-humankind climax, it’s because of the sincere and absolutely understated performance by Tom Hanks. As Langdon, Hanks realizes he’s not playing Ethan Hunt, James Bond, or Bourne. He makes his delusions believable; he invests such a natural arc of acting in his role, he props up the project even when it’s twaddling. Felicity Jones is very good too, until the writing lets her down in the end. Irrfan Khan is a treat to watch, the perfectly poised foil to Hanks’s anxious decryption. As an efficient killer and head of The Consortium, his is a performance that is enjoyably dried-rusky fun, his humour laidback, his action and delivery as impeccable as they come. How you wish you’d see more of him here.
If, then, you like your Hardy Boys on speed and rather relish the dark, Dan Brown template, Inferno could just be your kind of Dante outing, before you book tickets for the Florence Inferno tour.
Director Ron Howard Running Time 2h 1 min
Writers David Koepp (screenplay), Dan Brown (book)
Stars Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Omar Sy
Genres Action, Crime, Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Watch the trailer of Inferno here: