Inferno (2016) (Review)

Despite proclaiming that I am an avid film fan, I must admit to have never watching either The Da Vinci Code and Angel and Demons, the two films of which Inferno acts as a sequel to and thus, I went in completely blind. Adapted from Dan Brown's novel of the same name and featuring Tom Hanks reprising his role and Ron Howard taking directorial reigns once more, the third instalment in Brown's film adaptation adds Felicity Jones as the leading lady. It has slowly opened across the world in the lead up to its release in the US at the end of the month and scored rather negative reviews; but what is the film like for someone unfamiliar with its predecessors? Something a little more mixed.

Plagued with visions of Hell and with little memory of the events from the previous 48 hours, Professor Robert Langdon (Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence with a head injury; Doctor Sienna Brooks (Jones) treats him before fleeing with him when open gunfire begins. When a projection of Dante's Inferno ends up in the Professor's possession, and a price on his head, he must work out what his visions mean before they begin to wreak havoc in the real world, as the threat of a virus set to be unleashed on the world would begin to cull the population. Borrowing elements from art and religion to fuel its narrative, it focuses on the Seven Steps of Hell and how to escape Earth's spiralling overpopulation. What should be a rather engaging piece of film-making with a mix of the thriller, mystery, drama and fantasy genres accidentally becomes something unintentionally absurd and silly rather quickly, although if you can find try hard enough, it is just about substantial enough.

Hanks and Jones each provide solid and convincing performances in a script that otherwise leaves them fighting ludicrous and nonsensical material. Whether it's a lack of character understanding on my behalf given my ignorance to its previous instalments, or a lack of will on the film's behalf to continue developing its central character, Langdon seems rather insubstantial and underdeveloped despite Hanks' best efforts to give him some depth throughout the film. Jones, always a delight, thankfully has a more detailed character arc, with at least some backstory that unravels slowly and steadily, keeping one hooked long enough. Despite fears that the age gap would prevent it, they share a strong chemistry and prove to be a well-matched pairing, as the dynamic between them changes as the film progresses towards its conclusion. Some minor characters provide substantial performance, most notably, Ben Foster's Bertrand Zobrist, who acts as a gateway into providing the film's compelling and thought-provoking central ideas to consider, fuelling some of the main narrative beats, even if his character in particular relies a little too heavily on exposition.

Aesthetically, the film forms its own identity and looks visually unlike any other comparable thing; Howard manages to craft a strong vision for the film, thanks in part to its diverse and unusual setting - Italy is a captivating setting that oozes so much beauty but is rarely captured on film. By having Inferno play out in Florence and Venice - tonally feeding into the religious and artistic themes - Howard keeps audiences distracted with the visuals and setting when the narrative wavers, desperately attempting to paper over some of the cracks left by a weary story, as well as tying in historical and cultural imagery well. The use of flashbacks - characteristically blurry and unclear to reflect the mentally-impaired lead- unfolding gradually over the course of the film generally works, even when it feels more providential than one would appreciate. Hans Zimmer also returns into the fold, scoring the film well by adding some intensity to a number of sequences, even if his work is not as remarkable as some of his bigger hits.

Where Inferno really stumbles is striking a consistent tone and creating a rousing energy that causes the film to drag its heels on more than a couple of occasions. It's unfortunate that it lacks the vigour and spark that would elevate the picture into a more satisfying thriller, with at least some energy looking to offset the ridiculousness of the plot. It races from set piece to set piece with little time to consider anything in detail, burning through its own source material at such pace and cramming as many plot points and minor characters in its runtime as possible. It's overstuffed but lacks depth in a narrative capacity, offering the worst of both worlds in some respects. On the surface level, the narrative holds on long enough to be entertaining, but consider it any deeper and the plot holes are glaringly obvious and frustrating, resulting in something quite boring and superficial on the whole, despite how much is packed in. Brown's novels have also evaded me but one can see that this is a little butchered in its structure.

Inferno succeeds only because of the strong vision from Howard (and from the beautiful setting and location), as well as the solid performances and chemistry from both Hanks and Jones in the two lead roles. It's entertaining enough but never as smart as it believes itself to be, even with the talk of religion and art. It mainly comes undone through the jumbled, jam-packed narrative that focuses too much on surface level detail than any of the depth, that could elevate this film to being an intelligent thriller, as well as simply how ludicrous the entire thing is. It's a shame to see Hanks and Jones power through with such middling, average material when they really give their best effort with what they are given, with thinly-sketched minor characters failing to help them either. On the whole, its watchable but rather uninspiring, and I'm unsure whether a second view is warranted. Perhaps when I check out The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons my thoughts may change - for better or for worse, I'll let you know.

(REVISED - 5.5/10)
(ORIGINAL - 6/10)

Summary: Inferno's strong cast, beautiful location and solid direction manages to distract long enough from a jumbled and unclear story, thinly-written characters and surface level detail that disappoints when you consider the talent involved.

Highlight: Hanks and Jones are magnetic in their lead roles with a surprisingly solid chemistry.