Inferno: Hanks, Howard can’t bring the heat

It’s difficult to imagine a film called “Inferno” would be one to pull its punches.

But aside from a few interesting moments early, Ron Howard’s adaptation of the Dan Brown novel by the same name goes out of its way to play it safe.

This makes Tom Hanks’ third turn as expert symbologist Robert Langdon a largely flat, uninspiring jaunt around Europe on par with the film adaptation of “Angels and Demons” and well below “The Da Vinci Code.”

Langdon awakens in a hospital room with a gunshot wound to the head and short term memory loss, tasked with solving a series of puzzles left by a billionaire madman with an obsession with Dante’s classic “Inferno.” Aided by a beautiful doctor (Felicity Jones), Langdon must evade questionable law enforcement officers and solve the mystery to stop a plague from killing half of civilization.

Hanks has great familiarity with the Indiana Jones-esque Langdon, who essentially devolves into a Harvard-educated version of Matt Damon’s amnesiac Jason Bourne without the killer fight skills in “Inferno.” But three films into the role, it’s readily apparent that one of Hollywood’s best actors cannot muster up enough enthusiasm to elevate the material beyond second tier action fodder. 

Academy Award nominee Jones makes her biggest feature film appearance to date in “Inferno,” though her role as Langdon ally Sienna Brooks isn’t quite an auspicious major motion picture debut. Looking back, it’s clear moviegoers will remember her 2016 more for her lead performance in the upcoming “Star Wars” standalone film “Rogue One” in December. 

As Brooks, Jones isn’t quite a damsel in distress or the Watson to Langdon’s Sherlock Holmes or any other definable characteristic. What comes across on screen is an awkwardly lethargic female lead whose main purpose is to take some of the expositional dialogue off Hanks’ shoulders and advance the plot forward.

Ben Foster, who was incredible as an anti-hero bank robber in “Hell or High Water,” comes off equally as generic as the film’s main villain, Zobrist. The script pulls a lot of the punch from the character, but Foster plays Zobrist with little gusto given the fact that his character is trying to murder half the world’s population. It’s proper casting executed poorly. 

The film’s best moments come in Langdon’s many visions caused by amnesia, where Langdon glimpses clues to the puzzle as a terror-filled apocalypse. Because “Inferno” is a PG-13 adventure made for wide audiences, Howard doesn’t go too over the top with the gore for his Halloween weekend release. But the departure is the most welcome piece of cinema within “Inferno” as a whole.

Screenwriter David Koepp could easily be excused from simplifying Brown’s novel for film adaptation by cutting some corners early in the screenplay and eliminating minor fringe characters. What there really isn’t an excuse for, however, is the massive alterations to the film’s final act, which fundamentally changes the core motivations for several characters and weakens Brown’s unique original ending.

“Inferno” doesn’t really hold up over the course of two hours thanks in large part to poor plot structure and a middling effort from Hanks. The result is a decent, not good thriller that symbolizes a significant downward trend in the Robert Langdon franchise that only ardent Hanks fans may leave the theaters happy with.

Though Howard may finally be running out of steam, “Inferno” is still worth taking a chance on in theaters for those willing to turn their brains off for 90-plus minutes and just enjoy the ride.

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