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Hanks and Jones can't quite save muddled 'Inferno'
Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones star in "Inferno." - photo by Josh Terry
INFERNO 2 1/2 stars Tom Hanks, Felicity Jones, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ana Ularu; PG-13 (sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language); in general release

Ron Howard's "Inferno" posits a moral dilemma: If flipping a switch would annihilate half of Earth's human population, but not flipping the switch would guarantee the extinction of the entire human race inside of 100 years, would you flip the switch?

Apparently, Tom Hanks wouldn't flip the switch. Or rather, Robert Langdon wouldn't. "Inferno" marks Ron Howards third adaptation of a popular Dan Brown novel (after 2006's "The Da Vinci Code" and 2009's "Angels and Demons), and Hanks' third outing as author Brown's brilliant symbol-searching protagonist.

This time around, Langdon is trying to chase down a bioweapon engineered to forcefully solve the planet's overpopulation problem. The weapon is the brainchild of Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster), an extremist billionaire so desperate to fulfill his diabolical endgame that he jumps off a tower to his death in order to prevent its discovery.

We catch up with Langdon in a Florence, Italy, hospital as he's getting examined for a head wound that has left him with short-term amnesia. His doctor, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), is young, brunette and attractive, so even if we hadn't seen her on the movie poster, our experience with previous Brown films would assure us she will be his sidekick for the next couple of hours.

When an assassin dressed as an Italian policewoman (Ana Ularu) shows up at the hospital to kill Langdon, he and Brooks flee the scene and start reconstructing what happened to get him there in the first place. Their first clue is a tiny projector Langdon was carrying that contains a modified version of Botticelli's Map of Hell. So, unlike in the two previous films, Langdon has to interpret his own clues, which eventually puts him on the path to Zobrists weapon.

As it turns out, the assassin, who is working on behalf of a mysterious security firm led by a man named Harry Sims (Irrfan Khan), isn't the only party after Langdon. The World Health Organization is also on the hunt for the famed symbologist, though their chief agents (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen) seem to have competing agendas.

For a good two-thirds of the film, things go as you might expect, with Langdon and Brooks pinballing around Europe finding clues hidden in ancient paintings while inexplicably staying ahead of their much more capable pursuers.

Sadly, a couple of major plot twists take an already complicated plot and render it nearly incomprehensible, turning "Inferno" into a simple movie that is made complicated simply for the sake of being complicated. At its heart, Inferno is a chase to stop a bioweapon. But its based on a Dan Brown novel, so a square, symbol-heavy plot is hammered into a simple, round action-movie hole. Where Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons felt fluid and organic, here the symbol content feels forced.

Yet, if you squint your eyes and run with it, "Inferno" is still a decent thriller, thanks mostly to the people involved. Howards directing is solid, and Hanks is as watchable as ever. Jones is also a welcome presence, almost overqualified in a role that could easily feel arbitrary.

As for the moral dilemma, "Inferno" is far too caught up in its own plot to explore the ethics of population control. But take heart: If musings on population control are what youre looking for, you can always check out "Soylent Green."

Inferno is rated PG-13 for sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language; running time: 121 minutes.
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