Lawrence Toppman

Tom Hanks’ limp ‘Inferno’ never catches fire

Tom Hanks points out another incongruity in the screenplay to Felicity Jones in “Inferno.”
Tom Hanks points out another incongruity in the screenplay to Felicity Jones in “Inferno.” Columbia Pictures

S is for the silly plot devices;

T is for Tom Hanks, who’s lost indeed;

U is for unlikely (true of almost every scene);

P is for the patience you will need.

I is for the industry clichés here;

D is for dumb deeds of derring-do;

Put them all together they spell “Stupid”;

“Inferno” gets that harsh one-word review.

Wait – the page designer says this poem won’t fill up the space allotted. OK. Here are a few questions:

1) When do the Dan Brown adaptations stop? “The Da Vinci Code” took me pleasantly by surprise 10 years ago; Hanks did a credible job as professor Robert Langdon, and the movie did justice to the mystical mood of Brown’s book. But I skipped “Angels & Demons” in 2009, hearing that it fell short, and “Inferno” seems like a tired rehash.

2) Why do movie villains deliver lectures justifying their behavior instead of immediately shooting the hero in the head? Alternately, why do criminal geniuses create doomsday devices that require incredible contortions to activate, rather than detonating them as soon as possible?

3) Why do directors think excitement can be built by frantic cutting, odd camera angles or repeated views of the same event from different perspectives? Ron Howard, who’s tied to this franchise like a man trapped in a decaying house by a huge mortgage, tries without success to blow life into David Koepp’s script.

The bad guy this time is not a religious fanatic but a billionaire (Ben Foster). He devises a disease that will infect everyone on Earth, killing half of us and forestalling overpopulation problems.

Does he rent a helicopter and drop it on New York City, splattering millions of people with plague virus? No. He ties it up in a plastic bag, which he hides in a location in Europe and rigs to explode weeks later. He doesn’t tell his sidekick where to find it, in case his plans fail. Instead, he leaves clues Langdon intercepts.

Our hero is accompanied by a puzzle-loving doctor (Felicity Jones); other characters include an amoral security chief (Irrfan Khan), a World Health Organization official who was Langdon’s lover (Sidse Babett Knudsen) and a WHO official (Omar Sy) whose motives aren’t immediately clear.

Though there’s one big (and worthy) surprise, and explanations of ridiculous events halfway hang together, no effort has been made to make us believe what we see.

A priceless museum relic sits in a case with no alarms, so a thief can lift it out; Langdon always knows where secret exits can be found in ancient buildings; musicians blithely keep playing at a concert, while watching WHO workers in hazmat suits swarm into the hall.

Though Knudsen’s character wasn’t in the earlier movies, she’s treated as if we know her history and are emotionally invested in her. (She teamed with Hanks in the dud “A Hologram for the King” in April. Other than “Sully,” he’s having a bad year: He also produced “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”)

Even factoids in the tale are often wrong. “Quarantine” comes not from the Venetian isolation of plague ships but from France, centuries earlier. And a story based on Dante’s “Inferno” should correctly identify the century in which he wrote: not the 15th but the 14th. We don’t learn history from Hollywood, but why be sloppy?

Toppman: 704-358-5232


Cast: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen.

Director: Ron Howard.

Length: 121 minutes.

Rating: PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality).