‘Inferno’
Director:
Ron Howard
Stars: Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones
Rating: PG-13
1 Globe (out of 5)

“Renowned curator Jacques Sauniere staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery.” So begins Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code.” It might be the worst opening sentence in literature: clunky, artlessly expository, lacking the elegance of, say, E.L. James. The prose doesn’t get better. It is, however, hilarious, consistently and distractingly. Expecting a braindead page-turner, this writer couldn’t stop laughing enough to get past page 40. Finishing simply would have taken too much time.

Those 40, blissful pages of schadenfreude (for a mega-seller, alas) were more joyful than watching the inevitable, joyless movie from a decade back. Directed by Ron Howard, and premiering at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival (!!), it was high-toned trash, which is to say overlong, overly-serious and stacked with overqualified actors, each forced, as though by gunpoint, to spout plodding exposition. As renegade symbologist Robert Langdon, Tom Hanks, for perhaps the first time in his life, seemed both miscast and disinterested. America’s Dad was finally doing little but collecting a paycheck, whose high sum also evidently necessitated a laughable rich guy mullet.

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Jump to “Inferno,” the third Langdon movie, in which what once felt like indifference has curdled into despair. Once again directed by Howard — imagine being Dan Brown’s go-to director — it doesn’t even look fancy. Handsome Italian and Turkish locations aside, it looks cheap, rushed, edited to get this over with, not to untangle the book’s convoluted plot. This time our academic hero — the Indiana Jones of art heads, it seems, and less a nerd than a walking daily trivia app — is out to thwart a plot to poison half the world’s population … by flaunting his knowledge of Botticelli murals and sculptures of Dante! Waking up in a hospital room with super-migraines and selective amnesia, he goes “Three Days of the Condor” with a plucky nurse (Felicity Jones). The on-the-lam May-December not-lovers (thankfully) try to escape from assassins and three separate groups of government agents, one of them, maybe two, maybe all possibly bunk.

Here’s a theory this muggle has about the last three “Harry Potter” films: the screenwriters realized cramming all of J.K. Rowling’s busy plots into films that still ran longer than “Goodfellas” was impossible. Instead, they left out giant chunks of intel, hoping (rightly, it seemed) that readers would unconsciously fill in the gaps. That left those not intimately familiar with the books, or at even their Wikipedia pages, struggling to keep up. Let’s assume “Inferno” scribe David Koepp did the same here. That, or he realized Brown’s plotting was asinine, and he tried to make it as speedy as possible. Much of “Inferno” makes little sense, even with characters doing nothing but explaining the plot to each other. As it plods on, we get a conspiracy right out of “The Game,” plus a super-secret agency with mysterious, potentially insane motivations to deal with, but they remain mysterious and potentially insane.

Then again, what are you doing paying attention to the story? Stripped bare, “Inferno” is a morass of inexplicable escapes, juiceless chases and world-dominating schemes that would perplex a Bond villain. The thrills are confusing and low-energy — a blur of herky-jerk camerawork and motivation-free POV shots. A cadre of fine international actors (Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, “The Duke of Burgundy”’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) pop up to do little but mirthlessly spout nonsense. (Khan, however, is reliably charming; the man could make Campbell soup ingredients sound engaging.) Brown’s putrid tomes deserve to be TV movies, not Hollywood A-pictures peopled with great actors and Oscar-winners. Thing is, it feels like a TV movie anyway, an IMAX screen filled with pure garbage, but not the fun kind.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge