By a twist of fate, there are two infernos you can submerge yourself in this weekend. You can either take the Dan Brown audio tour of Florence and Dante's Divine Comedy in Ron Howard's adaptation of the author's "Inferno." Or you can tiptoe around the edges of volcanoes with Werner Herzog, contemplating their mythic power in "Into the Inferno."
If one must be sacrificed to appease the movie gods, it's not a hard call. Whether that would be enough to finally extinguish Brown's best sellers and their big-screen counterparts, however, is unlikely.
"Inferno" is the third Robert Langdon film, with Tom Hanks reprising the role of the Harvard "symbology" professor whose parlor trick is solving elaborate criminal plots by deciphering great works of art. If his exploits are to continue (and there is good reason to fear they might), I hope he'll eventually be confronted with a puzzle that brings him face to face with a Rothko, leaving him utterly bereft of clues.
The first two Langdon movies (also directed by Howard) were cold, soggy soups of conspiracy that served up a very poor man's Indiana Jones, minus the fun but plus a dubious haircut. The filmmakers have skipped one book in the series, perhaps wisely since Brown's "The Lost Symbol" enlists Freemasons as its conspiracy-du-jour, following escapades with the Catholic church and self-flagellating albino monks in "The Da Vinci Code" and the Illuminati in "Angels & Demons."
"Inferno," a better, more simplified thriller than those films, trades less on the ancient mysteries of a shadowy organization than the familiar arch villainy of a megalomaniac — and a good one, at that. The reliably intense Ben Foster plays Bertrand Zobrist, a billionaire who, fearful that overpopulation will destroy humanity, wants to trim the herd by half with a virus that will unleash a modern-day plague.
Langdon's role in the scheme isn't clear. The film begins with him waking up in a Florence hospital, his recent memory wiped clean by a head wound and his mind haunted by apocalyptic visions. It's that classic hangover with little to jog the noggin other than a mysterious bio-tube from the night before.
When a pursuer turns up and starts shooting, Langdon and the doctor on hand, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), flee and begin piecing together Zobrist's plot, one concocted with heavy shades of Dante and Botticelli's Map of Hell painting. They chase the virus while trailed by the World Health Organization (Sidse Babett Knudsen, Omar Sy) and a clandestine security firm (Irrfan Khan exquisitely plays its gentlemanly leader). Langdon and Brooks dash through the Palazzo Vecchio, the Boboli Gardens and other starred attractions in Brown's Florence guide book.
The opportunity to see Hanks traversing European capitals has been enough to make the Langdon films blockbusters. Along the way, Langdon — a bit of a drip — has not given Hanks much to work with. But slavishness to Brown's text has finally given way in David Koepp's script to an apparent understanding that the books don't deserve such regard, or at least that few care anymore.
The benefit is that "Inferno" isn't a burning heap of hogwash, like "The Da Vinci Code" was. It's a lot more like a tweed-jacket version of Bond or Bourne or most any other thriller out there. But if Langdon is distinguished from the other globe-trotting saviors by his PhD, why aren't his movies smarter?
"Inferno," a Columbia Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "sequences of action and violence, disturbing images, some language, thematic elements and brief sensuality." Running time: 121 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP