Tom Hanks looks puzzled a lot in “Inferno,” and no wonder.
As Robert Langdon, intrepid protagonist of the lethargic thriller based on the Dan Brown bestseller, he’s tasked with saving the world while suffering from splitting headaches and something called “mild retrograde amnesia.” Can’t the poor guy catch a break?
It’s not only the character, there are moments when it’s hard not to feel that Hanks himself is confused as well, perhaps wondering, “What the heck am I doing in this film? Haven’t I been here before?”
Of course he has. Renowned Harvard professor of symbology (a made-up field, but no matter), Hanks’ Langdon has been at the center of two previous films, 2009’s “Angels & Demons” and the franchise originator, 2006’s "The Da Vinci Code.”
Given that those two pictures grossed a total of $1.2 billion and that “Inferno” was the bestselling adult book of 2013, it’s no surprise that its been brought to the screen, even though the whole endeavor feels like a relic of the past.
What’s really too bad, however, is that the returning principals — Hanks, director Ron Howard, and screenwriter David Koepp (who co-wrote the “Angels & Demons” script) — couldn’t seem to get untracked this time around.
It’s not that “Inferno” as it stands doesn’t provide hints of better things. The plot has its share of unexpected twists, peripheral characters hold our attention, wide-screen vistas of tourist destinations Florence, Venice and Istanbul are easy to take, and stories involving the end of the world have a certain built-in interest.
But as presented on screen, none of this gels as it should. The plot is so confusing that it’s hard to follow, even when it’s being explained; aside from Langdon it’s difficult to know who to root for; and Hanks’ lassitude is matched by Howard’s direction and even spreads to the film’s costar, the usually reliable Felicity Jones.
As is perhaps fitting for a film whose title is the Italian word for hell, one of “Inferno’s” most involving characters, and the one we meet first, is one of its most evil.
That would be Bertrand Zobrist, energetically played by the always involving Ben Foster. A bioengineer and eccentric billionaire, Zobrist is introduced giving a TED talk-type presentation on a problem close to his heart: our planet’s overpopulation crisis.
“We are destroying the Earth, the next extinction may be our own,” he insists, before adding ominously, “Nothing changes behavior like pain. Maybe pain can save us.”
Robert Langdon, when introduced, would beg to differ. He is in a lot of pain and it’s not helping him one little bit.
Lying in a hospital bed in Florence, attended to by the attractive Dr. Sienna Brooks (Jones), he’s got those headaches and that amnesia to deal with, the result, the doctor tells him, of an attempt on his life.
More than that, Langdon is troubled by apocalyptic visions, things like rivers of blood flooding the streets and people with faces on the backs of their head.
Though this may not sound like business as usual for the director of “Parenthood” and “Apollo 13," Howard in fact has invested more in creating these dark moments than in ensuring that his actors invest themselves in their roles.
Oddly unconvincing as a befuddled individual who can’t remember the word for coffee, Langdon is forced to concentrate as the dire nature of “Inferno’s” plot begins to unfold.
As it turns out, Zobrist was not one of those all-talk and no-action individuals. Before his untimely death, he created a plague-type virus he called “Inferno,” which he and his associates plan to release into the world, killing fully half the population and making certain that no one need worry about overpopulation again. Not a sane plan, perhaps, but a plan nevertheless.
Because the location of the spot Zobrist has secreted the virus is a puzzle only a Harvard symbologist could solve, Langdon and his new accomplice, Dr. Brooks, end up leading the search for it, hence the scenic tour of Florence, Venice and Istanbul. Think of it as a treasure hunt with the fate of civilization as the prize.
Because of that potentially catastrophic result, lots of other folks are searching for Inferno as well, including health officials Dr. Elizabeth Sinsky (“Borgen’s” redoubtable Sidse Babett Knudsen) and Christoph Bouchard (French star Omar Sy), an enigmatic member of Italy’s Carabinieri (Ana Ularu) and the head of an organization called the Command Risk Consortium (top Indian actor Irrfan Khan.)
Following enigmatic clues like “truth can be glimpsed only through the eyes of death,” Langdon gradually regains his focus, and “Inferno” just as slowly gains some narrative traction. By the time that happens, however, it is too late. Not for the Earth, perhaps, but definitely for the film.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute.
In general release.