I have rarely come across such meticulous production values as in Ron Howard's Dan Brown adaptations. They're gorgeous movies that take Tom Hanks from one great European city to another, contemplating breathtaking works of art in sumptuous museums.
As travelogues, The Da Vinci Code (2006), Angels & Demons (2009), and the new Inferno are virtually unsurpassed. Tourist centers in Italy should totally stock the DVDs.
But as everyone who has been subjected to other people's home movies knows, vacation snaps don't always make for gripping entertainment.
Perhaps Howard's Inferno backers had a presentiment of the yawns to come in this third, utterly tedious installment. It was made on the cheap - as blockbuster suspense thrillers go - with a budget of $75 million, half that of Angels & Demons. The story also lacks the headline-making sensationalism of the first two films, which dealt with the (fictionalized) inner workings of the Catholic Church.
Yes, the world is in peril once again, but this time, the villain isn't a cardinal or an albino monk, but an entrepreneur - a visionary billionaire who wants to help the environment by getting rid of a few billion people.
Played with great manic fervor by Ben Foster, scientist Bertrand Zobrist believes that the only way to save the planet is to cut its population by half. Like Bond villains of yore, he has even come up with a handy homemade doomsday device.
Trouble is, Zobrist kills himself after hiding the thing. Luckily for the globe, he left directions hidden within a heap of esoteric clues drawn from Dante.
Enter Hanks' sweetly sardonic hero, Harvard symbologist and Dante fan Robert Langdon, who has already saved the Earth a couple of times.
And whenever Langdon is around, so are comely female intellectuals eager to help. Felicity Jones (Brideshead Revisited) is charming as Inferno's Sienna Brooks, a sexy, young ER doctor who saves Langdon's life, then tags along. Celebrated Danish star Sidse Babett Knudsen (Borgen) costars as the more-age-appropriate Elizabeth Sinskey, a bigshot at the World Health Organization, who may be trying to help Langdon - or to kill him.
Inferno features a bevy of other great supporting players, including Irrfan Khan (Slumdog Millionaire) as the crafty CEO of a private security firm who is out to kill Langdon - or to help him. Omar Sy (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is lithe as an investigator who is trying to help Langdon - or . . . you know.
Romanian beauty Ana Ularu plays a motorcycle-riding assassin who most assuredly is trying to kill Langdon. But on whose orders?
Inferno has a simple structure: Langdon runs from museum to museum and city to city, dragging the cute doctor by the hand, while the guest players chase him. Since he has had a head injury, our hero can't remember who is friend and who is foe.
The infernal truth is that Inferno gets boring fast. Howard seems to have forgotten that the Langdon stories are supposed to be puzzles, brain-teasing mysteries. Here, the symbology that Langdon does is so absurdly esoteric, and so beside the point, the audience stops following the clues.
Worse, we stop caring about the characters.
The more movie magic Howard piles on, the less we care. And, boy, does he pull out all the stops, stocking the pic with a tub of red herrings, half a dozen plot twists, and more complex set pieces than a comic-book flick.
I felt relieved when it was finally over.
1.5 (Out of four stars)
Directed by Ron Howard. With Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Ben Foster, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy. Distributed by Columbia Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours, 1 min.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some profanity, brief sensuality).
Playing at: Area theaters.