Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Through The Fire And Flames

Year: 2016
Director: Ron Howard
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

I have a love-hate relationship with Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon series, in that they’re terrible but I have an urgent, pathological need to read them and mock them. The art-based puzzle adventures are ludicrous works of revisionist history so transparently indulging in the lusty fantasies of an aging academic that they give pretty unprecedented access to the inner workings of a pulp author’s soul. They’re fascinating, personal stories cobbled together from the gaudiest ingredients of James Bond and Indiana Jones.

The Ron Howard-Tom Hanks film adaptations of said franchise fail to capture this garish self-indulgence (probably because not even the most hard-up individual in the world would consider Tom Hanks as a scholarly but smoldering sex symbol), so they’ve never been of particular interest to me. However, I needed some candidates for my worst of 2016 list, so I went to see Inferno (the third movie, based on the fourth book). You can imagine my surprise when it turned out to be kind of OK.

Even if you can’t, allow me to replicate that feeling now.

Florence, Italy. Real-job-haver, symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) wakes up in a hospital with no recollection of the previous 48 hours or how and why he is not in his apartment at Cambridge. When people begin shooting at him, he and his new sexy sidekick, ER doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), flee.

Then, for reasons too convoluted to explain in a single paragraph, they must follow yet another path of art-based clues (this time all related to Dante’s Inferno) to discover the location of a world-destroying plague set to be released in 12 hours. This plague was developed by the mad billionaire/TED Talk-giver Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) who killed himself three days ago. They’re also being chased by pretty much everyone in the known world: the W.H.O., assorted double agents, and a mysterious syndicate led by the amoral Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan). But WHO can they trust?


Let’s get this straight. Inferno is goddamn pulp. Adding a vague, age-appropriate love interest into the mix does not improve the source material, so it’s still a garbled, convoluted mess of a story. But it’s also the best of the bunch, opening with a bang by tossing us into the situation at the same time as the amnesiac Langdon. Although this sequence is frustratingly marred by constant reminders of his mental state in the form of nauseating, blurry Paul Greengrass camerawork, it also produces some of the best imagery of the whole series.

I should mention that this imagery is also balls-out terrifying, depicting – in the form of Langdon’s post-injury hallucinations – the grotesque stages of Dante’s Hell in lurid, live-action glory. It’s almost too disturbing, but the disgusting (sinners with their heads twisted around, etc.) blends with the elegant (a building with glass windows that explode into a geyser of blood like The Shining on amphetamines) to create something truly arresting. It’s been a long time since an image in a Ron Howard movie has actually wowed me, and while it might be too horrific for average audiences, I find its boldness refreshing.

What are YOU lookin’ at?

It might sound like I’m just being an easy lay for horror imagery, but I assume you I’m not. I love when a cookie cutter blockbuster takes off in any unique direction, and horror is one of many fringe genres Hollywood should call upon more often in their tentpole flicks. On the flipside of that coin though, I am always an easy lay for synth-driven soundtracks and the delightfully Carpenterian tangents in Hans Zimmer’s score fascinate me to no end.

There’s a lot of unique and interesting stuff going on in Inferno, which pushes it to the head of the pack. But it’s still a Dan Brown movie, so let’s not get carried away. To be frank, the film assumes that we’re drooling idiots. Langdon reads a four-line email to himself about three times while the camera lingers over every word, just to make sure we get it, and every major clue is repeated ceaselessly like this is a kindergarten math class.

"See those N, Y, and C symbols? Those probably point to New York!"

Because it assumes we know nothing about anything (except, apparently, the finer details of Dante’s Inferno, which it completely fails to elaborate on), the film indulges in two of the hoariest tropes of adventure cinema: the magical doctor and the magical academic. Although Langdon’s area of expertise is symbology (still not a real job), he’s also apparently an expert on art, history, architecture, city planning, and –what the hell – probably rocket science. The sheer amount of pseudo-intellectual babble that spills from Langdon, a character who is actively suffering from a head injury, is Hollywood shortcutting at its worst.

Obviously this is a carryover from the novel, as is the dreadfully wooden dialogue (“I can’t believe you have the temerity to ask that I simply decide to…”), but Hanks drowns in the nitty-gritty of the role, which stifles his own natural charm and considerable dramatic talents to provide a truly boring protagonist. But I don’t blame him. Boring is better than irritating, which his constant outbursts about the thematic importance of doorways threatens to have him become.

So, yeah. Don’t think I’m singing Inferno’s praises to the high heavens (the scene where someone is shocked that a European speaks French because she’s – gasp - a woman, was already enough to knock off a point or two). But its daring horrific elements, a killer final setpiece, and an incoherent but reasonably twisty plot fueled by Irrfan Khan’s deliciously banal evil performance make for a decent enough popcorn thrill ride.

TL;DR: Inferno is a surprisingly decent popcorn thriller, possibly the best of its anemic franchise.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 986

1 comment:

  1. "probably because not even the most hard-up individual in the world would consider Tom Hanks as a scholarly but smoldering sex symbol"

    Hey, Hanks is America's dad, and America has daddy issues.

    On the other hand, if you look at Hanks' personal hobbies, if he were anybody else, you'd think he was insane. (Fortunately, he is Tom Hanks, so his "HEY EVERYBODY ON THE INTERNET! I FOUND A GLOVE!" obsessive-compulsive disorder is more charming than otherwise.)

    I have to say, though, as a veteran of both The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons, that Robert Langdon must be Hanks at his lowest possible level, and why he's in these things remains an open question.

    It's an extra pity for Howard, I think, since I reckon the reason he makes them is for the money, and if a Ron Howard movie is going to badly underperform anyway, I'd rather him do another Rush or In the Heart of the Sea than another Robert Langdon adventure.