Here’s a dare that will get you killed: Smuggle a flask into Inferno — the third of Tom Hanks’s crypto-nonsense Dan Brown thrillers — and take a shot every time someone says “Dante.” Yes, it counts when Hanks’s Harvard puzzle whiz Robert Langdon and his latest brilliant brunette literally google “Dante,” because in the decade since The Da Vinci Code was a smash, director Ron Howard has finally realized there’s no need to race to the library.
If you brave the drinking game — and you should, the film will be a lot better with it — by the end you’ll be woozy and stumble-footed, your head clouded with horrors. Kind of like Langdon himself, who starts the movie brain-wiped and bloody in an Italian hospital. He remembers being in Cambridge. He has no idea how he wound up here.
“What am I ... doing ... in Florence?” he croaks to his doctor, Sienna (Felicity Jones). When he closes his eyes, he sees a street scene from Hell: flashing lights, rivers of blood, humans with no arms or no faces or faces twisted around backward as if to keep glaring at Langdon even after passing him by. He imagines his friends getting bitten by snakes, and severed heads sticking out of the sidewalk like weeds. In this hallucinatory state, sounds are so sharp they stab us in our seats. Sienna clanks a water glass on the table and it’s as loud as getting hit in the head with a hammer. We’re expecting another dusty thriller with violins and fragile manuscripts. Instead, Inferno is so aggressively modern it feels dated, as if Howard saw a Nine Inch Nails video 20 years ago and thought, Hey, maybe the kids these days will like that.
Somehow, this all traces back to billionaire bioengineer Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), the kind of alt-right sociopath who gives TED Talks about the need to cull the population while clicking through PowerPoints of landfills and maggots. He’s invented a plague called Inferno, which will wipe out most of humanity in a month, and hidden the vial where it will do the most harm. In the first scene, Zobrist climbs a spire to escape World Health Organization agent Christoph (Omar Sy). It doesn’t work, so the brilliant killer flings himself off the tower, and Howard makes sure we hear the three sickening thuds before his corpse hits the ground.
So it’s up to Langdon and Sienna to track Zobrist’s hints across Europe until they discover his fatal time bomb. They make a weird pair. He’s fuzz-brained and too old to do much running. When Hanks attempts to climb a stone wall, you groan, “C’mon man, you know you can’t do that.” Later, after a fiend stabs him in the neck with a syringe, Hanks emits a moan that sounds less like a furious action hero and more like a grandpa who’s tripped over the laundry basket.
And Sienna is a ridiculous construction: a child prodigy who has hero-worshipped Langdon since she was 9, and never quite explains how a British symbologist with a deep knowledge of classics wound up sewing bullet holes in Florence. Together, they don’t make much of a team. In an early scene, Landon asks her for a beverage he can’t name: “Something brown ... hot ... people drink it in the morning for energy.” “Tea,” Sienna guesses. The future of humanity is in their hands?
Luckily, there are other diversions. Ana Ularu plays a hitman who’s like the Italian lady cop version of the T-1000. Irrfan Khan is hysterical as a mastermind who gets that this flick is kind of a joke. And Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen, simultaneously playing Quality Control Chief Theresa Cullen on Westworld, single-handedly salvages the film’s climax. Still, the most agonizing thrill in the franchise continues to be watching Langdon & Co. treat precious relics like old bananas, shoving them into pockets and Ziplocs and smashing them to save their own necks. When it was all over, I found myself googling Dante for my own clue as to what I’d just suffered: “He who knows most grieves most for wasted time.”