Close on the heels of his deeply felt “Sully,” Tom Hanks takes his art down a peg with another paycheck performance as the dramatic cipher Robert Langdon in “Inferno,” Ron Howard’s mostly lame adaptation of Dan Brown’s wholly lame novel. I have no prejudice against Brown. His breakthrough novel “The Da Vinci Code”—a conspiracy thriller that exploited the wide gaps in our knowledge of biblical authorship and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa—was a more-than-acceptable potboiler. In some ways, it did a better job of illuminating the insane inner lives of paranoiacs and religious zealots than a lot of investigative journalism. The other books in the series, though, don’t have the same vaulting credulity, and the writing remains barbarous.
“Inferno” turns on amnesia. Langdon wakes up in a Florence hospital with a head wound, and a pretty British doctor named Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) checking his vitals. He has no I.D., but as luck would have it, she knows who he is. She’s a puzzle enthusiast and once saw him lecture when she was a little girl. Before you can say, “What are the odds of that?” a female terminator in a cop uniform is blasting away at them, and suddenly, the doctor and his patient are running through the streets, en route to various museums, tombs and cathedrals in search of something very, very important relating to Dante, Botticelli and overpopulation. Langdon has apocalyptic visions: rivers of blood, humans turned by plague into howling piles of flesh. Billions of lives are at stake. Maybe trillions. Have I lost you yet?
In these Langdon movies, Howard does his best to be a thriller director, but he doesn’t have the killer instinct. Even when he’s doing good work, you feel as if you could duck out to the restroom and not miss anything important, which I did. The first part of Inferno—a long, long chase—is so simple-minded, and the characters are so thin, that it barely feels like a movie. Then, in a flash, the film goes from boringly simple to ridiculously convoluted. Good guys may be bad guys, and vice versa. Bad guys might be turning good—or staying bad. Langdon’s old girlfriend Elizabeth (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an agent for the World Health Organization, may or may not be trying to kill him. Who knew the W.H.O. was so cloak-and-dagger?
The real surprise is that “Inferno” has a decent ticking-time-bomb climax in the bowels of an ancient Turkish labyrinth, helped by the presence of both Elizabeth (Knudsen) and Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan, “Jurassic World”), who’s so charismatic as a deadly private contractor that I was hoping he’d get his own spinoff. Khan commands, even when delivering drivel. But watching Hanks bummed me out. He’s not a comedian anymore. He’s a terribly earnest fellow, and he’s bent on serving the terribly earnest Ron Howard, who’s bent on serving this terrible material. Their symbiotic blandness eats into your brain. Together with Dan Brown, they might have inadvertently discovered the tenth circle of hell. “Inferno” wasn’t anywhere as good as Howard’s big screen take on “The Da Vinci Code,” but it was a lot better than his 2009 take on Brown’s “Angels & Demons.” However, that’s not saying much at all.