When Tom Hanks walks briskly but sternly across the screen in his third and most desperate outing as Harvard symbologist Dr. Robert Langdon in director Ron Howard’s Inferno, he won’t be the first member of the AARP that also happens to have his own adventure blockbuster movie series. Our movie stars are getting older and older, and not just because of the fact that, well, obviously everybody ages. It’s more that aged stars like Hanks, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, or Liam Neeson are still popping up in similar — if not the exact same — roles beyond the time when it seems more plausible for them to move on to cozier, more stable parts.
By all means, sexugenarian and septugenarian stars are an empowering and a refreshing sight, especially at a time when every teeny bopper that breezes through the Disney Channel seems to be getting their own throwaway dystopian YA novel adaptation just because it might grab a few hundred million dollars. It’s great to see silver-haired grandpa and grandma kicking ass on the silver screen and holding their own, because it’s something we haven’t really seen before. That alone is worth it. But such an unconventional pattern begins to lose steam when the actors in question begin to really show their age. This is perhaps the biggest weakness that hampers Inferno.
It’s not like the Hanks-led adaptations of author Dan Brown’s airport novel staples were Die Hard-level action movies to begin with. The first two gained their narrative mystery with shady Illuminati business tied to ancient Christian symbols and artifacts, but for the most part they were rather staid. Hanks relies more on inflaming his intellect instead of gunfire. The crux of the The Da Vinci Code’s plot was that Langdon would potentially expose the secret descendants of Jesus. The stakes picked up a bit with Angels & Demons as Langdon had to use his symbologist smarts to stop a terrorist plot that would destroy the Vatican. They feature the series’s patented scenes of Hanks’s perpetually tweed-encrusted character stopping in various museums, staring at priceless works of art like the Mona Lisa, and figuring out the secret signs that would lead him to uncover whatever the MacGuffin is that drives the plot.
Inferno puts the fate of the world at stake as a Dante-obsessed billionaire geneticist (Ben Foster) has created a virus called Inferno (natch) that could wipe out the world’s population and Langdon has to do his art thing to stop it. These kinds of grave stakes make the plot as overblown as, say, Marvel blockbusters that consistently put the entire planet in jeopardy. But Hanks and his character’s inability to become the real dude superhero action star the movie wants him to be makes the fact that he’s 60 years old abundantly clear. For what it’s worth, Hanks does get some action scenes, with the climax culminating in hand-to-hand combat with the geneticist’s henchmen to stop the virus in what has to be the most dynamic fight in which a Harvard professor has ever participated. In the end Inferno is an high profile action movie starring a guy that has no business being in one.
That isn’t to say other long in the tooth stars can’t pull this kind of thing off in similar films based around rousing adventures. Harrison Ford was already six years older than Hanks is now when he had to suit up as Indiana Jones again in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Stuntman or no stuntman, Ford was able to swing from the rafters and tussle like it was 1981 again while also having his ancient aches and pains be the butt of the joke. He’s scheduled to appear again as the famed archeologist in a fifth installment of the series in 2019 when Ford will be 77.
Liam Neeson has also made a late-career comeback starring in gritty franchise exercises as fractured former cops having to take matters into their own hands despite having such trouble be beyond their years. He was a gravelly 56 years old when he kicked off the Taken series in 2008, and was still showing bad guys his certain set of skills in the third installment in 2014 as a 62-year-old. He didn’t stop in between, starring in similar action thrillers like Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, and A Walk Among the Tombstones*.
Considering the financial returns on these types of movies, this geriatric trend doesn’t seem like it’ll slow down. But maybe actors like Hanks should by sticking to the other roles that he’s known for as well. Hanks is still a quote-unquote serious actor whose versatility is only matched by his ability to consistently deliver awards season-worthy performances when he needs to like the recent Captain Phillips and Sully.