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Puzzle Masters

Hanks and Howard's Inferno




INFERNO. Lacking any connection to, experience with or substantive prior knowledge of the works of novelist Dan Brown, including the two prior cinematic adaptations in this series, The DaVinci Code (2006) and Angels and Demons (2009), my preconceptions about Inferno were founded on the canon of director Ron Howard and star Tom Hanks. They memorably collaborated on Splash (1984) and Apollo 13 (1995) before getting together again a decade later to start telling these Robert Langdon "symbology" stories.

Howard has become something of a titan of the movie industry, having worked extensively on both sides of the camera, first as a child actor, then as a director and producer who by now has almost too many credits to count. As a director, he can be hard to pin down stylistically. He hasn't created a Howard aesthetic that supplants the narrative stuff of whatever story he's telling. Nor does he let a specific type of story or thematic structure define him creatively. Instead, his body of work speaks to a seemingly insatiable intellectual curiosity, a near-constant search for compelling stories and full-blooded characters. He has worked almost continuously for 60 years in an industry where careers often have a shelf life in the single digits. So while I might not love every movie he makes, I admire his drive and purpose. And even his less compelling stuff is inarguably well put-together.

In a way, Hanks and Howard make an ideal pair. While the latter has done the work of a journeyman to become a tycoon, the former has become one of the biggest movie stars of all time by almost always acting unassuming. While obviously an artist of significant talent and craft, Hanks has made a place for himself in cinematic history not with transformative, reaching roles but with earnest, approachable ones. There are exceptions, to be sure, but when we watch a Tom Hanks movie from whichever decade, there is no question that we are watching Tom Hanks on screen. Yet it somehow doesn't matter. His screen presence, his uncanny ability to bring himself to each part, transcends that fact and allow us to suspend our disbelief.

With all that as background, I guess you could say I was ready to give Inferno a fair shake.

Robert Langdon (Hanks) wakes up disoriented in a hospital bed with a nasty looking head wound. Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tends to him, explaining that a bullet grazed his scalp and that he was admitted to the hospital lacking a phone or any identification. Fortunately, as something of a puzzle savant and fan of his work as a child, she recognizes him. In the midst of this introduction, Langdon looks out the window over a darkened city skyline and is shocked to learn he is in Florence, Italy. He has no memory of leaving Boston. Within minutes, a sinister policewoman is stalking the hospital halls, shooting one staff member and attempting to kill Langdon. The good doctor helps him to a cab and hides him in her apartment. As he begins to recover some of his faculties, he finds a hazardous materials containment tube among his blood-stained clothing. His thumb-print unlocks the device (troubling in itself!), which in turn contains a bone cylinder that projects a doctored version of Botticelli's depiction of Dante's Inferno. Contained in the image is a clue path linked to troubled billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), a bio-engineer with radical ideas about over-population. Langdon and Brooks set out across Italy to uncover whatever it is that Zobrist left behind, all the while contending with Langdon's violent headaches and faulty short-term memory. Plus, of course, the full force of the World Health Organization and private security firm operatives.

Maybe I got played for a sucker, maybe it was just the right kind of afternoon for it — I don't know — but I kind of liked Inferno. It's mass-market entertainment, make no mistake. It succeeds because it doesn't pretend to be anything else and because it is compelling throughout. Had I seen the previous two installments, perhaps I would have been tired of this character and what I must assume is by now fairly boilerplate puzzle-solving. But I hadn't, so I appreciated a fun adventure story played out against the classical beauty of Florence and Venice. Hanks does his thing, which I'll acknowledge is not for everyone but suits me just fine. Felicity Jones makes for a compelling foil, building layers of emotional and intellectual complexity to her character that manifest in often masterfully subtle ways. The supporting cast, including Foster, Omar Sy, Irrfan Khan, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Ana Ularu, comprise an entertaining rogue's gallery of questionable motives.

To reiterate: This is a popcorn movie. But it is so much better crafted and more consistent than most that it feels like it belongs in another class. It's not an awards contender, it doesn't make me reconsider the human condition (well, some of the over-population stuff but that's another conversation) and it's not high art. It is, however, well-crafted, good-looking entertainment and lately that's hard to come by. R. 163m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

— John J. Bennett

For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.


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— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill


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