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Non-Review Review: Inferno

Inferno is not a good movie.

It is clunky and contrived, moving at so gentle a pace that even the character need to constantly remind each other that the fate of the human race lies in the balance. Its action sequences are clumsily staged, its twists are all entirely predictable and its impressive international cast strain to stretch their roles out to two dimensions. This is a film that has trouble generating tension despite the fact that there is an imminent threat to half of the world’s population. Inferno simply doesn’t work.

"It says... 'one if by land, two if by sea'?"

“It says… ‘one if by land, two if by sea’?”

And yet, in spite of all that, there is something strangely compelling about it. Inferno is amess of a film, but one that holds attention by virtue of how strikingly odd it is. Inferno feels very much like a James Bond film, if only they’d sanded down the rough edges of that nice old Roger Moore fellow, cast that quirky uncle who is really useful at table quizzes, and combined it with something like The Crystal Maze. The film plays like afternoon television on an epic scale, with Robert Langdon feeling like he could call in a favour from Perry Mason or R. Quincy at any moment.

Inferno is strange enough that it holds interest, feeling more unique than the recycled pseudo-histories of The DaVinci Code or Angels and Demons. There is an endearing eccentricity to the film, which might just be the gentlest apocalyptic thriller ever made. It is a weekday afternoon blockbuster.

"I belong in a museum!"

“I belong in a museum!”

There is something appealing about the idea of Tom Hanks as an action star. Indeed, the Robert Langdon films could be read as Ron Howard’s answer to the classic Indiana Jones films, the adventures of a globe-trotting factotum uncovering dangerous mysteries while ensuring that the right artifacts end up in the right museums. This is something like a more casual and less intense Indiana Jones or James Bond film, a globe-trotting adventure for audiences who favour fundamental decency over cheeky roguery.

Tom Hanks is a charming performer, the kind of individual to whom could be entrusted the future of mankind with the expectation that he would behave in a reasonably responsible manner. Robert Langdon isn’t going to swing across chasms holding precious artifacts, but will treat them with the appropriate respect and veneration. When artifacts are dropped in water, they are thoughtfully placed in airtight plastic bags first. Langdon’s most reckless act involves crossing the ribbon protecting an exhibit at the Palazzo Vecchio. Even then, he only does it because the fate of the world is at stake.

"Boy, I wish I'd watched 24 instead of Ancient Aliens."

“Boy, I wish I’d watched 24 instead of Ancient Aliens.”

Hanks brings an affectionate dorkery to Langdon. During the middle of a high-stakes chase sequence involving the well-armed goons of the World Health Organisation, Langdon pauses to advise his travel companion, “You really should take the guided tour.” He seems to mean it sincerely. When Langdon asks to see a mystery exhibit, retracing his footsteps and without any clue what lies in store, his colleague muses, “It’s really quite morbid.” Langdon counters, “No, it’s actually quite cool.” There is never a sense that that Langdon actually believes he is pulling any of this off.

The result is a rather strange combination, as if Jessica Fletcher wandered on to the set of Spectre. There are any number of suggestions that Langdon is spectacularly ill-suited to the quest upon which he finds himself, making clumsy decision after clumsy decision. At one point, Langdon evades an armed opponent by slipping quietly into St Mark’s Basilica. The throngs of tourists make it hard to pick a single face out, until Langdon creeps across the altar as clumsily as possible while staring out into the crowd to catch his pursuer’s eye.

"Don't worry, we don't even have to keep moving at a brisk walk for most of the runtime."

“Don’t worry, we don’t even have to keep moving at a brisk walk for most of the runtime.”

Inferno hinges on ridiculous twist after ridiculous twist, but the movie’s biggest reversal is obvious to any savvy viewer from the opening scenes. However, despite his keen intellect and incredible perception, Langdon is blindsided by this thunderingly obvious revelation. Watching the sequence play out is quite a strange experience, because both Langdon and Inferno seem to believe that the twist is masterful and completely unforeseeable, while audience has figured it out at least one full hour earlier.

This dissonance is endearing. It is never quite clear how seriously the film intends for the audience to take this action adventure. Whenever Inferno revs into action mode, it seems ridiculous. It feels almost like a collection of action scenes cobbled together from the memories of every irritable grandparent who has ever been tasked with supervising a young child engaged in an outdoor activity. At one point, Langdon is menaced by a drone camera the Grand Boboli Gardens. The climax devolves into a messy water fight at Basilica Cistern. It is an OAP day out on steroids.

Font of all knowledge.

Font of all knowledge.

This is without delving into the absurdity of the basic plot, which hinges on a genocidal billionaire who has fashioned a weapon of mass destruction that he plans to unleash on an unsuspecting population, seemingly motivated by the fact that he watched The Spy Who Loved Me or Moonraker once too often. However, rather than requiring Langdon to infiltrate a secretive cabal or follow the evidence, Inferno has this maniac construct a fiendishly intricate set of clues that will hopefully guide one of his followers to a weapon that has the capacity to wipe out half the human race.

The standard logical questions apply. Why not deploy the weapon immediately? Why only develop a single stock of the weapon and keep it in one solitary location? Why build a series of elaborate clues that could lead your followers to it, but could also lead any of your opponents to it? There are any number of interesting ideas that bounce off that central premise, from the question of whether the film’s antagonist ever really planned to detonate his weapon to the idea that he was horrified by the reality of what he had created.

"You know, I hear we could take the Hannibal tour while we're in town. Just floating the idea."

“You know, I hear we could take the Hannibal tour while we’re in town. Just floating the idea.”

Inferno brushes past these questions, offering the safest answer. The clues are there because this is a Robert Langdon story, and there have to be clues for Robert Langdon to solve to lead him to the centre of a dastardly conspiracy. It is such a strange set-up that it becomes almost appealing, particularly the sense that Robert Langdon has developed into a hybrid of an afternoon quiz show contestant and a middle-aged Jason Bourne. The other characters seem genuinely awed by Langdon’s ability to remember esoteric details, treating it as something akin to a superpower.

Again, there is something oddly affectionate in all this, the po-faced seriousness with which the movie treats the concept of its pub quiz secret agent. When Langdon is cornered in the Boboli Gardens, his pursuer double-checks that there are no other exists. A local police officer makes passing reference to an “Ancient Gate”, but shrugs it off. “Nobody knows about that.” There is a dramatic pause. Omar Sy cocks his head in what is at once a gesture of panicked recognition and of awed respect, as if to be sure to afford his reply the gravity that it properly deserves. “Langdon does.”

The Beige Inferno.

The Beige Inferno.

It is intriguing to see such a character at the centre of a movie that features all the trappings of modern action films, from constant surveillance to shadowy cabals to automatic rifles. Against all that, Langden’s Hanksian decency shines through. Staring down the barrel of a gun, Langdon seems more likely to offer an esoteric titbit than a witty retort. Even when it comes to the obligatory closing scene gag, Inferno portrays the character as cheeky in the way that he careful replaces a priceless relic he had to borrow. Oh, the film seems to tease, that playful scamp.

Inferno is an oddity, and its title feels like something of a misnomer. “Perfectly Temperate” is perhaps a better descriptor.

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2 Responses

  1. Reviews like this are why I enjoy your reviews so much. You just refuse to simply condemn or praise a film, but instead take a more analytical approach. Your reviews are like Pauline Kael’s in that way.

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