Maybe the third time is the charm. Director Ron Howard, producer Brian Grazer and star Tom Hanks’ third adaptation of a Dan Brown treasure-hunting novel, following “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” may be their best.
Given the low expectations one takes into the cinema, after two artistic duds that nevertheless made reasonably high grosses to justify a third try, this may not be saying much. Yet “inferno” captures the fun the other two laborious exercises somehow lacked. Also Hanks’ hairdo has improved considerably.
The formula remains intact though: Hanks as art historian and cryptologist Robert Langdon is accompanied on his adventures by a comely young woman, in this instance Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) — an English doctor who is helping him recover from both mysterious wounds and amnesia. The duo races around Europe seeking clues from historic works of art to avert calamity even as they get chased by many dark forces, so many, in fact, that it’s impossible for them, or you, to sort out who is friend and foe.
Langdon, of course, knows art backwards and forwards — literally, in fact, as he must detect codes and meanings in old paintings —while Sienna just happened to study Dante at university, which is fortunate since Dante’s “Inferno” and a Botticelli painting illustrating that epic poem lie at the heart of a mystery they must solve to track down a deadly virus.
So these two information-dispensers lob academic factoids at viewers as they dodge bullets and assassins all over Italy and then Turkey. Did I mention Sienna suddenly bursts forth in fluent French or Italian when the need arises? Yes, it helps having a woman like that around.
Among the factoids one learns in the movie, if paying the least bit of attention, is how the Black Death spread in the Middle Ages, the arcane symbolism in Botticelli’s painting “Map of Hell” and the origin of the word “quarantine.”
Along with the postcard locations of Florence, Venice and Constantinople, Howard has brought aboard his strongest cast yet including Sidse Babett Knudsen (HBO’s “Westworld”), Ben Foster (“Hell or High Water”), Irrfan Khan (“Jurassic World”) and Omar Sy (“The Intouchables”).
The movie begins with a barrage of disturbing images of the world in turmoil, fires erupting, demented souls rampaging through city street, bodies faces distorted by disease and a man giving a TED Talk-like lecture.
Then that man, who turns out to be eccentric billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Foster), bizarrely believing most of humanity must die from a new plague to save itself from overpopulation, is pursued through the streets of Florence only to throw himself off a bell tower rather than be apprehended by an unknown agent, Brouchard (Sy).
Cut to an obviously ill Langdon awakening in a hospital suffering from an apparent gunshot wound and amnesia. He is shocked to learn he is in Florence, doesn’t know how he got there and cannot even remember the name of the beverage he craves known as coffee.
Yet he can remember things such as the nearest secret passage in the Palazzo Vecchio, which miraculously remains unlocked centuries later. Comes in handy when people are chasing you with powerful weapons such as the determined female carabinieri (Ana Ularu) who shoots early and often whenever she spies the two.
Why is anyone chasing these two in the first place? Good question, one that hovers over much of the movie until it’s cleared up — only not really. More surprisers and twists lie ahead.
The Harvard professor has a reputation for puzzling out ancient codes and meanings from works of art so, essentially, he’s been once again lured out of Cambridge into a fast-paced game of figure-out-the-clues while working against a ticking clock.
For the late billionaire zealot has left behind clues that will lead a seeker to a biological virus he created — Where? How? Or never mind those details! — that will destroy half the world’s population within 24 hours.
Those that are following hot on the heels of the duo include the World Health Organization with its own quasi-SWAT team headed by Elizabeth Sinskey (Knudsen), who turns out to be an old flame of Langdon’s — what a small world this all is — and a powerful international security firm run by Harry Sims (Khan) that is behind much of the deception.
The trouble with detailing any Dan Brown plot schemes is they all sound enormously silly. Which, of course, they are but while watching this movie at least the bang-bang-bang pace established by Howard right from the start and earnest playing by the cast makes you believe in this unbelievable world.
An art professor as an action hero makes for strange optics but Hanks has been able through three movies now to down play any heroism in favor of portraying a laser-focused academic whose powers of concentration and recall rival that of the famed (and equally fictional) Sherlock Holmes. So even as men with guns bear down on him he is able to stand in front of a Vasari painting in the Palazzo Vecchio and discover crucial meanings.
Screenwriter David Koepp, no doubt encouraged by Howard and Grazer, has significantly altered Brown’s climax to maximize suspense while avoiding the more cynical, downbeat finale Brown envisioned in his conspiracy novel.
Salvatore Totino’s outstanding cinematography lets the thriller unfold in brilliantly lit ancient locations while Dan Hanley and Tom Elkins’s editing move things so briskly that the two-hour movie feels like 90 minutes.
Howard has made all sorts of movies throughout his directorial career, but his best ones usually have ticking clocks and characters under enormous pressure such as “Apollo 13” and Ransom.” He’s good at detailing exactly how people escape a remorseless fate and pulp fiction such as “Inferno” is no exception.
Opens: October 28, 2017 (Columbia Pictures)
Production companies: A Columbia Pictures and Imagine Entertainment presentation in association with LStar Capital of a Brian Grazer production
Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ana Ularu, Ida Darvish, Cesare Cremonini
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriter: David Koepp
Based on the novel by: Dan Brown
Producers: Brian Grazer, Ron Howard
Executive producers: David Householter, Dan Brown, William M. Connor, Anna Culp, Ben Waisbren
Director of photography: Salvatore Totino
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Dan Hanley, Tom Elkins
PG-13 rating, 121 minutes