According to Rotten Tomatoes, no one has really liked any of the movies based on Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon novels. Both The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons score well under 40 percent on the revered "Tomatometer." These movies cost a lot of money to make, but, thanks to the worldwide box office, they make even more money, so this weekend we get the third installment of the series titled Inferno.
As I noted last week in my review of "Jack Reacher: Never Go Back," I don’t care about the movie’s source material or the movies that came before "Inferno" in the franchise. I just want to be entertained for two hours.
"Inferno" begins with a chase and a suicide. Ben Foster (Lone Survivor) plays charismatic billionaire biomedical engineer Bertrand Zobrist. Zobrist has created a super plague that can wipe out half of the world’s population. He has hidden the virus, and, just before law enforcement can capture him, he jumps to his death, and good news! We get to watch him hit every ledge and protruding brick on the way down!
I feel like when his body landed with a thud on the street below, director Ron Howard (yes, that Ron Howard and yes, I know he is better than this!) missed a golden opportunity to cue Drowning Pool’s “Down With the Sickness.” I mean, hell, that’s the level of intelligence we’re working with going forward. Opie Cunningham may as well have set the right tone.
Tom Hanks is back as our hero Robert Langdon. When he enters the picture he is in a hospital, the victim of a failed kidnapping that has left him struggling with some episodic amnesia. All he knows is that bad guys are after him and his head is bleeding.
Enter a helpful young British doctor who, for some reason, is working at a hospital in Florence, Italy. Her name is Sienna Brooks. She is played by Felicity Jones, who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in "The Theory of Everything," but who are we kidding? You know her from the "Star Wars: Rogue One" trailer.
Sienna takes Langdon back to her apartment to hide out. Which works out, because I guess this international syndicate of super villains never thought that one of the people they’re chasing might go home.
Inside Sienna’s apartment, Langdon discovers that he is in possession of a tiny projector that contains a map of Hell based on Dante’s Inferno with clues to the location of the next clue (a scavenger hunt - fun!). The promise, of course, is that all of this will lead to the location of Bertrand Zobrist’s super virus and help these two stop a global pandemic.
This actually leads to my favorite element of truly bad acting/writing/story structure in the movie. When Langdon and Sienna discover a clue in Latin, they have no trouble reading it, and one of them quickly translates it in their minds. When a clue is written in plain English, though, these two native speakers read with the pace and clarity of my seven-year-old daughter trying to sound out the word “grasshopper.”
Sienna and Dr. Langdon get chased, because, you see, a lot of people want control of the virus. Ron Howard uses a lot of shaky cam to run after them.
The whole thing is a mess. Like, literally a mess if you’re prone to motion sickness. I kinda am and had to close my eyes a lot to keep from throwing up…that may have been due to this horrible move, but I choose to believe it was the physics of shaky cam.
Okay, side tangent here. Is shaky cam even impressive to anyone anymore?
I mean, it’s been around since the 60s, and I guess it has got renewed vigor thanks in large part to "The Blair Witch Project." Since then, we have seen every gimmick surrounding shaky cam used and overused, and never once have I thought, “Wow, what an interesting choice! I’m so glad the director did that!” Even in "Cloverfield," where it was supposed to add to the chaos of the night in question, it did nothing for me.
So where was I?
Oh right, art and super viruses. I actually think I am at a logical stopping point to avoid giving away any major plot twists, and, admittedly, there are a few of them. Most of them you should see coming, but I don’t want to ruin the fun.
The biggest problem "Inferno" has is that it is a freakin’ mess. One hour into the movie I couldn’t tell you who anyone other than Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones were, and I sure as hell didn’t know anyone’s motivations for doing anything.
It’s possible this movie is a victim of time and place. I expected more because I saw "Inferno" in a theater. As a big budget movie, it’s no good. Now, if this were a TV movie that was supposed to lead to an original series on TNT or USA, I would call it ambitious and promising.
That’s really disappointing, too, because Ron Howard has made two of my favorite movies of the last ten year - Frost/Nixon and "Rush." He has a track record that tells me that even if a story isn’t necessarily good (for instance last year’s "In the Heart of the Sea"), his direction and visual style will still make it something worth the time investment. With "Inferno," it’s clear Howard, and maybe Tom Hanks too, has a vacation home or a boat or a cryogenic chamber to pay for.
Finally, I’ll leave you with this. Remember 1991’s "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Secret of the Ooze?" How about 1995’s "Batman Forever?" Both of those movies featured my favorite movie soundtrack phenomenon of the 90s that has sadly fallen out of favor. That is the rap song either in the middle of the action or during the credits that gives you a book report version of the plot or, even better, a quick psychological evaluation of the villain’s motivation.
Inferno is about as good as "Secret of the Ooze."
Where was this movie’s version of Vanilla Ice’s “Ninja Rap?" Couldn’t someone have called Drake to write “Breakin’ it Down” to explain how Robert Langdon is so good at solving riddles and putting together codes that lead to his ultimate goal?
Demetri Ravanos is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and has reviewed movies for Raleigh and Company, Military1.com and The Alan Kabel Radio Network.