Tom Hanks sure has been out and about a lot this year for an aging superstar. Hanks reached such career heights during his heyday (roughly 1992 through 2002) that his past-peak years offered a number of prescribed, superstar-tested paths beyond the usual character-actor possibilities: increasing scarcity, a la Jack Nicholson; stepping behind the camera more often, a la Clint Eastwood; or, weirdly, both at once, like Warren Beatty. But over the past 12 months, Hanks has done no such thing, appearing as the unequivocal lead in no fewer than four movies (this is more live-action leads than he played in movies in the five years prior).
The final Hanks star turn of 2016, Inferno, should be something of an easy layup and a victory lap. He's playing for a third time Robert Langdon, the brilliant but unassuming professor at the heart of Dan Brown's pulpy adventure series, most famously The Da Vinci Code, which Hanks, director Ron Howard, and A-list screenwriter David Koepp adapted together about a decade ago. They reunited for 2009's Angels & Demons, and all three are back for Inferno, wherein Langdon wakes up with a bleeding head wound, amnesia, and an unfolding mystery about a plague that might wipe out half the human race. This is the best Robert Langdon movie so far, which is to say it is the shortest, and which is also to say that, at two hours, it is still too long. (Still, well short of Da Vinci's nigh-unforgivable 150 minutes.)
The returning crew includes Salvatore Totino, Howard's cinematographer on the previous Langdon adventures as well as many of Howard's other 2000s output. But Howard's recent work with Anthony Dod Mantle seems to have rubbed off on him, because Inferno features more low-angle close-ups and smeary, skittery imagery than I recall from either previous Langdon movies. The early section of the movie, where a disoriented Langdon runs around Italy with the no-nonsense Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), getting flashes of Dante-inspired visions, is silly enough to be fun, with the silliness compounded by some late-movie twists before the whole thing writhes around too much to stay standing and collapses in a heap.
Clearly, there are limits on how good a Robert Langdon movie can reasonably be expected to be. Some of this probably has to do with Dan Brown's source material, but some of it seems attributable to Langdon himself. On paper, it makes sense that Hanks would want to develop a signature, franchise-able character to provide steady big-studio work in between smaller projects. Hanks was one of America's biggest movie stars during a very different era, when star-driven, adult-targeted thrillers and even dramas (like his earlier collaboration with Howard, Apollo 13) could rule the summer box office. Before Angels & Demons, the only sequel Hanks ever did was Toy Story 2, which barely counts (and is also one of the better sequels ever made). An Indiana Jones less inclined toward fisticuffs fits his gentle, steadfast persona, and based on his dialogue, Langdon could use a star of Hanks' stature to imbue his character with some actual life.
And yet three movies in, that hasn't exactly happened yet, and seems increasingly unlikely. Some of this may come back to that Brown material, but it's a little surprising to watch Hanks in Inferno, just weeks after his fine performance in Clint Eastwood's Sully, and only really see him come to life when he's acting brusque or addled by his bleeding-head circumstances. Like the lesser work of later-period Tom Cruise, the Robert Langdon movies play like part of a Tom Hanks career beamed in from an alternate universe, where he became famous and well-liked, but perhaps not super-famous and universally beloved — where his reign as a big movie star was more of a passing fancy, like Nicolas Cage's. (The Langdon figure in the Cage filmography, Ben Gates of the National Treasure series, is a lot more fun to be around.)
Both Cruise and Hanks are, in their own ways, aging gracefully. They both look good, they both still have plenty of on-screen presence, and they both make more good movies than bad. The Robert Langdon series also shares with many Cruise movies — particularly the similarly airport-novel-based Jack Reacher series, the second of which is now playing — a middle-aged, vaguely monastic approach to the opposite sex. Like Da Vinci, Inferno pairs Hanks non-romantically with a younger, European ingénue, just as Cruise has taken to mentoring, but rarely bedding, kickass women in his action movies.
This is equal parts admirable, craven, and odd. Admirable, because these movies don't employ female leads exclusively to motivate or make eyes at aging Hollywood men. Craven, because those female leads are typically a decade or two younger as Hanks and Cruise march through their fifties and sixties. And odd, because there's just the slightest hint of self-regard in this restraint. This is perhaps more true of Cruise than of Hanks; his lack of romantic interest in Felicity Jones is hammered home by a somewhat bizarre subplot involving a character named Elizabeth (Sidse Babett Knudsen, also from the Hanks vehicle A Hologram for the King). Elizabeth, treated almost as if she's a returning character from the other movies (she's not), seems to be introduced primarily so Langdon can ruminate at length about lost love, something that generally has fuck-all to do with the doomsday plague staring him in the face. As written by Brown and Koepp and performed by Hanks, Langdon is too politely focused on his work to register as romantic; he's like Anthony Hopkins in The Remains of the Day, except his tragedy is dullness. At least Jack Reacher's emotional minimalism has a classical strong-silent appeal.
Langdon's dullness is also odd because he isn't supposed to be dull, I don't think. He's supposed to be the Tom Hanks version of a superhero; Hanks can't play Captain America (I guess Sully came close), but he can certainly do what movie stars did before they played superheroes, right? Really, Hanks can do almost anything; he has an underrated versatility as an actor. He can play funny, serious, depressive, silly, smart, dumb, morally upstanding, or morally compromised. But he has met his match in Robert Langdon, and in a Hollywood that so prizes franchises even as audiences insist that no, really, they are willing to see the standalone movie about the two-minute plane crash. Hanks, even in his older years, should be a relatively precious commodity. Even at its ridiculous best, Inferno is like a riding mower that runs on fine wine.