'Inferno' Review

Photo Credit: Sony Pictures

Inferno continues the Da Vinci Code franchise 10 years after it began, back when it promised to "shake the very foundation of mankind" with its Jesus conspiracy theory. But nowadays, the franchise can't even get a summer release date, as even a promised apocalypse isn't enough to make it more than an afterthought at the end of October. As such, it is fitting that Inferno completes the franchise's path from earth shaking phenomenon to pure camp, although it may still be the most enjoyably and utterly goofy installment yet.

Robert Langdon is literally beside himself as he wakes up with no memory at a Florence hospital. He barely has any time to get his bearings before someone takes a shot at him, leading him to flee with ER doctor Sienna Brooks. Vague and terrifying apocalyptic visions, along with a pointer containing an altered painting of Dante's Inferno, leads Langdon towards a genocidal plan from a dead billionaire named Zobrist, who aimed to cure world overpopulation with a virus that would kill half of mankind. Now somehow armed with the clues to find it, Langdon and Sienna race through Italy against time, two different World Health Organization investigators, Zobrist's fanatical followers, the requisite shadowy organization and Langdon's own spotty memory to prevent "Inferno"'s release.

Director Ron Howard immediately takes advantage of author Dan Brown's original set up, indulging full on with the disorienting, Dante-esque visuals of Langdon's visions. If nothing else, going that crazy with over-the-top sights and imagery sets Inferno apart from its predecessors. And for those who thought Tom Hanks was too stoic in Sully, they won't have those concerns in the first act of his second movie this fall.

Once the novelty of these bizarre flashbacks and of Langdon's starting point settles in, it is time for the usual Brown/Da Vinci Code puzzles and journeys through a skewed history. But while The Da Vinci Code took on the story of Christ himself, and Angels and Demons went through the Vatican itself, Inferno leaves religion and the Church well enough alone this time around. Plus after Sienna saves his life through causing an assassin's death, Langdon actually says he prays she won't have to do it again, which is a pretty ironic choice of words from him.

Although the stakes are raised up to an apocalyptic level in this one, it feels like the higher ambition of the past two installments has declined, regardless of how flawed they were in carrying it out. Inferno settles for revolving around an time honored premise about villains killing billions to save the world at large, and believing humanity to be Earth's real virus. We've seen that old debate in many a film before, just as we've seen the usual Langdon puzzle solving hunt before.

While there is value and real mystery in the start of Langdon's path during the first act, things slow to a lull in the second act, as the answers appear easier to figure out than initially promised. Between that and trying to keep track of the various forces after Langdon and Sienna, Inferno only has fits and starts of inspired lunacy for a while.

However, that all changes when the traditional big late second act twist occurs. From then on in, it sets the movie off on a truly off the rails path, both in ways that make it indefensible as an actual good film and in ways one can't turn away from anyway.

When the revelation occurs, it is initially surprising, but it is one of those twists that could be vaguely suspected in the first act, if not downright predicted. From then on, Inferno rolls downhill towards more answers and reveals that become goofier and goofier with every passing minute.

By the time things go particularly overboard in the climax, it seems to be aiming for camp classic status, either intentionally or otherwise. It certainly says something that Langdon has far more fight scenes required of him at the end than in the past two climaxes combined.

At this point, one knows what to expect from this franchise, so viewers likely already know not to expect air tight logic. Still, this pushes it even by past Dan Brown standards, albeit to such a point that one has to keep watching. It certainly shouldn't be a goal to make a movie that is enjoyable just for being so ridiculous at the end, but it is technically better than forgettable mediocrity.

Perhaps the goal is to have lowered expectations from the start, which likely isn't a problem for those underwhelmed by the past two movies. While the badness of movies like Batman v Superman and Terminator: Genisys is more offensive for their failed ambition and importance, or for their betrayal of what came before, it is easier to turn the brain off and revel at the sheer madness of a film like Inferno. There is little way to mistake that as the quality of a truly good film, yet at least it is a more fun to watch kind of bad than the likes of The Girl on the Train and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back this month alone.

But in the long run, Inferno will be remembered as a footnote in 2016 for pretty much all its main actors. After Hanks drove Sully towards box office success and Oscar buzz several weeks ago, and made his mark on SNL again just days ago, it is easier to let something like this slide, although the Da Vinci films have never really been held against him anyway. For Felicity Jones, this is the mere warm up act for the much bigger Rogue One and the much more emotional A Monster Calls, none of which will likely put her through Inferno's kind of paces.

For Ben Foster, after being so electric as the wilder bank robbing brother in Hell or High Water, it is sadder to see him much more subdued here, even with the role of a demented billionaire who inspires people to think killing billions is heroic. Granted, such a premise might be a bit more topical these days than intended, but Foster isn't allowed to really sell it.

Then there's the increasingly important role for Sidse Babett Knudsen, right as she is getting seen each week as one of the supposed humans behind HBO's Westworld. Even Howard had a Hulu documentary about the Beatles weeks ago to give him some extra credibility before Inferno. Only Irrfan Khan doesn't have a blockbuster or awards contender to fall back on this year, but he does get some of the best lines here as the head of a secret firm in the middle of everything.

Inferno is a film that starts with promise, grinds it down in the middle, and then goes completely bonkers for an entire third act. Not a lot of it is intentionally entertaining in the way Howard and company meant it to be, yet it does pretty much demand to be seen to be believed, or rather the other way around.