REVIEW: Damning Tom Hanks' Inferno with Faint Praise

Ten years after Tom Hanks and Ron Howard teamed to bring Dan Brown's hit novel "The Da Vinci Code" to theaters, the always affable duo has reunited for "Inferno," the latest adventure of Robert Langdon, master of puzzles and expert in religious iconography and symbology. And hey, it definitely is a movie, so it's got that going for it.

A follow up to "Angels & Demons," "Inferno" stays true to the franchise by presenting Langdon (Hanks) with a cryptic quest punctuated by famous art and eureka moments, plus an attractive brunette sidekick whose penchant for the mystery is matched only be her dedication to donning business casual clothes during elaborate chase scenes. But this time, the stakes are higher than ever, with Langdon seeking a deadly McGuffin to stop its contained plague from annihilating half of the Earth's population. To make matters all the more dramatic, the brilliant mind is shackled by a concussion that's giving him nightmarish visions of Dante's Inferno and short-term amnesia, which demands he question everything, even his own mind.

On paper, the premise seems promising. But the execution makes its story so confusing you might worry Langdon's head trauma is contagious. Perhaps attempting to imitate the frantic pace of Brown's beach reads, Howard paces the film at a full-out sprint, with characters stumbling into jaw-dropping revelations, gunfire, or chases at every turn. At this speed it's difficult to keep up with the story. But perhaps that's for the best, because while the puzzling plot doesn't add up, at least there's little time to linger on that. Then the final "twist" is so hackneyed, it's shocking that no one is twisting a mustache in overzealous evil relish with a "Mwa ha ha!" for good measure.

To his credit, Hanks is fully committed to Langdon. It's still a delight to watch America's Dad race about to save the world from terrorism and chaos. But too much screen time is committed to a murky relationship with his latest quest companion, Sienna Brooks ("Rogue One"s Felicity Jones), a bright young doctor with a passion for puzzles. It's unclear if "Inferno" is trying to spark a May-December romance or a father-daughter bond between the two, which makes their shared scenes a squicky mystery of its own.

Because of the trailers, I was particularly intrigued to see Ben Foster play the American billionaire who's purposely planned a new plague with high-minded theories about the greater good. Whatever the project--be it the ambitious high-fantasy of "Warcraft: The Beginning" or the low-key Western "Hell or High Water"--Foster always brings mesmerizing volatility to his role. Regrettably, this Foster foe is swiftly written out via suicide, robbing the film of its juiciest character before act two even kicks in. An array of other could-be baddies are pitched in to fill the void, including Omar Sy as a World Health Organization agent, Sidse Babett Knudsen as his secretive boss, Ana Ularu as a trigger happy cop, and Irrfan Khan as a mysterious but ever-cool under pressure assassin. Some of these offer some spark. Hell, I'd be glad for a spin-off of Khan's elegant killer character. But it's not enough for "Inferno" to feel alive or vital.

To Howard's credit, the visions element allows "Inferno" to weave in some Dante-inspired visuals that are luridly horrific. Hanks' reliable screen presence adds enough verve to the sloppy story to make it watchable, though not cinematic. But in the end, the best I can offer is the damning of faint praise: "Inferno" is a modestly entertaining diversion.

"Inferno" is now in theaters.

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