You almost have to admire the cojones that it took for Dan Brown to name the fourth book in his Robert Langdon series after a seminal work of the literary canon. It’s been more than a decade since The Da Vinci Code targeted an unexpectedly lucrative demographic of people who love both puzzles and Jesus, and in that time his commercial success has produced an equal and opposite reaction of critical disgust among those who value the beauty and possibility of language. Inferno is the latest escapade of Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks), everyone’s favorite genius professor-cum-relatable schlub, and Ron Howard’s adaptation retains the essential inanity of the source material.
Howard remains rooted to the tedious formula of Brown’s text, which hits all the familiar beats as prior Langdon books. The motivation behind the character’s latest adventure comes from a plague concocted by a young bioengineer, Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), as a means of aggressively solving the world’s overpopulation. Langdon, introduced as he groggily regains consciousness after suffering a head wound, is swiftly caught up in a race to find the virus that Zobrist, in a fit of hollow symbolism, has set to unleash at midnight. Langdon’s sleuthing is aided by a series of arcane clues that Zobrist, for some unknown reason, leaves buried in references to Dante. Thankfully, the professor, who’s so addled from his head trauma that he cannot recall the word “coffee,” can still look at a copy of a Botticelli painting of Dante and immediately spot the details that differ from the original.
And so, Langdon sets off on yet another quest through various Old World landmarks, attempting not only to find the virus, but to stay abreast of a surprisingly well-armed World Health Organization that believes him to be in league with Zobrist, as well as a mysterious, clandestine private group that wants him expediently dispatched. This largely plays out in scenes of the professor sluggishly running around Italian cities, pausing just long enough to catch his breath and offer an introductory history of a painting or building.
Accompanying Langdon is Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), an English doctor and childhood prodigy who inexplicably works in the Florentine local hospital that admits him at the start of the film. Despite her fluency in Italian and her expert knowledge of Dante’s work, Brooks spends the first half of the film as a sounding board for Langdon’s patronizing explanations, as well as the basic translations he offers in between relying on Brooks to talk to locals.
Brown’s books never hold up to much scrutiny, but Inferno’s nonsensicality is particularly remarkable. The Da Vinci Code-esque setup of the story is baffling in a context in which Langdon doesn’t uncover a conspiracy, but instead tracks clues that Zobrist left behind to lead people to a virus the bioengineer doesn’t want found. Likewise, the plague’s totally destructive design negates a subplot about forces wishing to steal the virus and sell it to the highest bidder, given that the express purpose of Zobrist’s plague is to kill the world indiscriminately and without the possibility of a cure.
Howard, as he has with the prior Langdon films, makes the lethal mistake of taking this nonsense at face value, and he renders the professor’s endless exposition with po-faced sincerity. At times, the filmmaker even manages to visually replicate the tedium of Brown’s penchant for blunt detail, as in a shot of Brooks’s framed newspaper story about herself going to college at age 12, as if that isn’t the sort of thing her parents are more likely to keep around.
This is material that begs to be made fun of, but it’s impossible to do so given how Howard reduces it to a dull spectacle of earnest puzzle-solving. The only reprieve from the film’s tedium is Irrfan Khan’s turn as the provost of the shadow security firm tailing Langdon. Khan instinctively understands that a man who runs a fixer organization from a battleship cruising international waters is inherently ridiculous, and he plays the part with a deadpan sense of irony that offers blessed relief from the seriousness of the rest of the film. The provost responds to subordinates with withering condescension, makes quick calls about assassinating targets as if modifying a schedule, and speaks with the bluntness of a man who’s never feared stepping on anyone’s toes. Khan only gets a few minutes of screen time overall, but he’s such a buoyant presence that, at times, this miserable slog becomes genuinely entertaining.