Tom Hanks is not Nicolas Cage.
This, for the most part, is a good thing. Academy Award winners both, Hanks and Cage first made their bones with off-kilter comedies where Hanks played the wonderful regular guy gone a bit wonky, while Cage played the wonky guy with just a touch of regular. As they moved into serious cinema and became distinctive actors able to shoulder challenging projects, Hanks grounded himself by excelling in roles demanding verisimilitude while Cage flew off into determinedly weird parts and genres. Prestige found one while toupees found the other. And both fit into their own worlds: Cage couldn’t have pulled off Forrest Gump, Hanks would have scuppered Adaptation.
I talk to you about these two actors I love simply because Hanks has crossed the line with Inferno — Ron Howard’s adaptation of Dan Brown’s novel of the same name — and stepped firmly into Cage territory, by making a sad, schlocky mess of a movie with an inane plot, daft storytelling and bad hair. This is a simplistic, silly mess that tries desperately to appear intelligent by invoking the name of Dante Alighieri a dozen times — when all it really wants to do is be a National Treasure goof. It emerges as neither, because Howard and Hanks treat the material as if it makes sense instead of embracing its B-movie heart, as a modern-day Cage movie would. This could have been a glorious so-bad-it’s-good entertainer, but thanks to its self-seriousness, Inferno emerges merely bland and undercooked. There’s nothing to this film.
The plot is admirably loony — that of a mad scientist (!) trying to heal the world by culling half its population — but the clues, hidden here in Botticelli’s famed Map Of Hell painting, are too easily solved, without either clever deduction, dramatic fuss or even preposterousness. Everybody in this film rushes from clue-spot to clue-spot as if at a scavenger hunt for slow children, and nothing comes close to making sense. The scientist has, exasperatingly enough, offed himself and instead of having detonated his apocalyptic world-halving virus, he has absurdly left clues so that his followers can find it and set it off. GK Chesterton this ain’t.
Hanks, as Robert Langdon — basically an incontinent Indiana Jones — is a bumbling professor who appears to have lost his memory after a blow to the head, and while it is indeed pleasing to see the actor bring alive a character who remembers the order of Dante’s circles of hell while forgetting the word for coffee, it is also dull. Even less cognisant of the film’s genre is Felicity Jones, who, as Langdon’s comrade in crisis, shuttles around with an annoying urgency and — while a fine actress otherwise — fails spectacularly in her shrill attempt to create an intriguing leading lady in the genre. (If in the mood for a genuinely fun film about hidden ciphers and professors on the run, I recommend a 50-year-old Stanley Donen lark called Arabesque, starring Gregory Peck and Sophia Loren. You’re welcome.)
Also in this film is our very own Irrfan Khan, an actor who can do anything but, cast here as a smarmy, omniscient Bond villain type, he isn’t given quite enough of a challenge. Save for correcting his assistant and pointing out which of his own questions are rhetorical (all of them), Khan’s character — called ‘The Provost’ — is basically a pro wasted.
I’m not saying Nicolas Cage could have rescued this film. Far from it. I’m just saying he might have given us some moments to grin at. This one is just a yawn. Should you try it out? I infer: no.
Rating: 1.5 stars
First published Rediff, October 14, 2016