Ten or so years ago, a passenger on a trans-Atlantic flight looked sideways across his airplane and noticed that six of the eight people in his row were doing the same thing that he was.
Drinking? No: Reading “The Da Vinci Code.”
Even if your head was in the clouds back in the mid-2000s, you knew that the popularity of Dan Brown’s potboiler knew no bounds — as of 2009, about 81 million copies of the 2003 novel had been sold. And it got even hotter after it was announced that Ron Howard would direct the film version, and that Tom Hanks would play intrepid Harvard iconologist Robert Langdon, thwarter of ecclesiastical mischief and unveiler of “truths” about religiously founded conspiracies.
Even Hanks described the movie as “hooey”; co-star Ian McKellen, being English, used the adjective “codswallop.” The Catholic Church went slightly ballistic. Even 10 years later, the whole episode is recalled with some distaste. But despite withering reviews, audiences ate it up.
Which, of course, led to a sequel or, rather, prequel — “Angels & Demons,” based on the Brown novel of 2000 that also featured Langdon, and in which the Church (now the good guys) confronted the Illuminati (bad guys). “Angels” earned better reviews, if not more money. (“Da Vinci” the movie has earned more than $758 million worldwide; “A&D” about $486 million). The law of diminishing returns seemed to be in force.
Nevertheless, Friday, Oct. 28, marks the release of “Inferno,” which reunites Howard and Hanks, this time with an international cast that includes Ben Foster, Sidse Babett Knudsen and Felicity Jones. Robert Langdon is back, this time with amnesia. He and his doctor (Jones) pair up to thwart a deadly global plot. And so too apparently is the Brown-Howard-Hanks penchant for far-fetched filmmaking. Already released in Europe (standard practice for a movie expected to tank here), “Inferno’s” reviews have been pungent. Not that it will matter to Tom Hanks.
Outside the screening room of the former Sony headquarters in Manhattan, there once hung photos of old and new(er) Hollywood stars, some juxtaposed in a way that implied the younger performers were today’s version of the older ones. Hanks’ photo was beside Jimmy Stewart’s. It’s an obvious parallel to draw, between yesteryear’s nicest guy in the movies and his virtual reincarnation.
But much like Stewart, Hanks is more interesting when he’s not so nice. In fact, niceness sometimes gets in his way when you look at his better performances.
1. CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002) Carl Hanratty is just a supporting role in this underappreciated Steven Spielberg film, but Hanks is at his best as the cranky, weary-yet-determined FBI agent, in pursuit of con man Leonardo DiCaprio and a supporting acting Oscar (which he didn’t get). He doesn’t have to carry the movie, but in some ways he does.
2. CHARLIE WILSON’S WAR (2007) Hanks is vulgar, smart and hilarious as the congressman who garnered support for the Mujahideen when the Soviets were ripping up Afghanistan. The unfortunate way things were going politically in 2007 meant this Mike Nichols film didn’t get nearly the attention it deserved.
3. THE ROAD TO PERDITION (2003) No one thought this Sam Mendes gangster film was a total success, but Conrad Hall got a posthumous Oscar for his stunning cinematography, and the mustachioed Hanks is an interesting study as Michael Sullivan, a ruthless, on-the-run enforcer for the Irish mob, and devoted father to the young son (Tyler Hoechlin) who flees with him.
4, 5 and 6. TOY STORY 1,2 AND 3 Despite his two best actor Oscars, one of Hanks more memorable roles is Woody the cowboy, leader of Andy’s playroom and benevolent adversary of Buzz Lightyear.
7. BIG (1988) Definitely one of his nicer roles: Josh, the child in the adult body, was a golden opportunity for the then-up-and-coming Hanks, who made the whole story lovable and real. You hated to see him turn back into a kid.
8. A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN (1992) Again, Hanks wasn’t the center of the movie’s attention, but his close-to-washed-up baseball manager Jimmy Dugan is one of modern comedy’s more memorable reprobates and “There’s no crying in baseball!” one of the actor’s more memorable lines.
9. FORREST GUMP (1994) OK, Forrest was pretty nice, and a tour de force for Hanks, who earned the second of his back-to-back Oscars (a year after “Philadelphia”), for playing the Zelig-like Southerner with the heart of gold and head full of feathers.
10. CAST AWAY (2000) It’s not easy to carry an entire movie when all you have to play off of is a volleyball named Wilson, but Hanks pulled it off, and rather impressively. The movie was also, unquestionably, Wilson’s finest performance to date.
11. APOLLO 13 (1995) This nerve-wracking movie had a pitch-perfect Hanks. How he got away without an Oscar nomination seems to defy all the rules of Academy Awards and Tom Hanks, except one: In this Ron Howard-directed adventure he’s definitely occupying the hero zone, which isn’t always where he thrives, but where he’s probably most comfortable.