Hot visuals, dense plot fuel Ron Howard's 'Inferno'
Maybe it's called "Inferno" because you can't always figure out what the H. E. Double-Hockey-Sticks is going on.
If you thought Ron Howard's first two adventures based on Dan Brown's best-selling Robert Langdon novels ("The DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons") came off moderately stagy and cumbersome, "Inferno" feels like a bad acid trip through a globe-trotting James Bond movie, except 007 carries no gun and the resident uber-villain commits suicide during the first act.
"Inferno" begins with a pixeled montage of TV footage in which zillionaire biologist Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) rails against humankind's exploding population, predicting our end of days unless drastic action can be taken.
Next thing we know, Zobrist races to the top of a bell tower in Florence, Italy, and, rather than be arrested by a World Health Organization agent named Bouchard (Omar Sy), hurls himself to his death in an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's classic "Vertigo."
(How Hitchcock might have staged the climactic cat-and-mouse Summer Solstice Concert scene with its floor of blood-red water spurs the imagination, and underscores just how busy, confusing and fussy Howard's direction is by comparison.)
Wounded Harvard professor and noted symbologist Robert Langdon (played again by Tom Hanks, now looking world-weary and plain tired) wakes up in a Florence hospital with no memory of what happened to him.
Emergency room doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tells him a bullet grazed his scalp, throwing him into temporary amnesia.
Why would someone want to kill him? He barely asks the question before an assassin dressed as a police officer shoots up the hospital on her way to kill Langdon.
The doc and the professor escape, and for most of the movie zip all over Europe looking for clues that will lead them to a doomsday virus called Inferno, created by Zobrist as the ultimate solution for Earth's overpopulation problem.
Good thing for Langdon that Zobrist left behind clever, if not ridiculously overcomplicated clues to the virus' location, most of them tied to the works of Dante.
The race begins, with Langdon and Brooks (demonstrating that women can run and jump on cobblestone streets in pumps just as well as in Nikes) finding an altered version of Botticelli's "Map of Hell," which points them to Vasari's painting "The Battle of Marciano," then on to Istanbul and back to Italy.
"Dante's Inferno isn't fiction!" Langdon shrieks. "It's a prophecy!"
Langdon comes fully loaded with Dante FAQs that he draws like guns when he needs info to stay ahead of the mysterious factions chasing him.
He can't fully trust his colleague Dr. Elizabeth Sinskey (Danish actress Sidse Babett Knudsen), head of the World Health Organization, even though they share a past.
He really can't trust Harry Sims (a charismatic Irrfan Khan), an agent for a mysterious shadowy entity called the Consortium.
It's bad enough people want Langdon dead. He suffers debilitating Dante-esque visions of suffering, disease and violence, including a huge wall of spurting blood no doubt inspired by Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining."
Visually, "Inferno" ranks as the best and boldest of Howard's Langdon adventures, although David Koepp's exposition-dense screenplay opts to be an overly faithful adaptation of Brown's book at the expense of a streamlined, focused movie script.
At least "Inferno" doesn't repeat the inadvertent spoiler from "Angels & Demons" where a noted actor appears in a seemingly insignificant supporting role, telegraphing that he'll revealed as a baddie.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy
Directed by: Ron Howard
Other: A Columbia Pictures release. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations, violence. 121 minutes