There’s an early scene in the post-apocalyptic action-adventure film, The Book of Eli, in which Denzel Washington’s character finds himself on the bad end of an altercation involving a roving band of beggar-thieves. In a deep, grizzled voice (not unlike the way Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan might have delivered it) he slowly and deliberately tells one of the crooks, “You lay that hand on me again and you will not get it back.” Naturally, the bad guy, backed by the prospect of a five-on-one advantage, can’t resist the challenge. But before one can say “Johnny needs a new prosthetic,” the man and his hand are quickly separated.
Now that’s a good movie. But unfortunately, twin filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes, want their film to be something bigger than simply the next action flick. Apparently much bigger.
The opening scenes of the film feel eerily familiar. Dark, ash-strewn landscapes littered with rotting corpses and abandoned remnants of civilization evoke 2009’s The Road. But whereas that film struck for the weightier dystopian themes of hope, humanity and the will to survive, The Book of Eli (with Gary Whitta at the pen) initially seems content exploring the more topical aspects of trying to survive in a dying world… things like kicking ass Billy Jack style and seeing who can amass the biggest arsenal of weapons. As that type of picture, The Book of Eli stands out and stands alone. But when heavy-handed religious overtones and worn out genre clichés are thrown in the mix, it quickly becomes evident the Hughes Brothers are in over their heads.
It’s circa 2040, some 30-odd years after a war has rendered the landscape bare. A man (we later learn his name is Eli) heading West on foot for an unknown reason stumbles into a dirty, run-down town that resembles any of those from the classic spaghetti westerns of the ‘70s… only more like something from The Road Warrior where Frankensteined vehicles stand in for horses and sooty-faced citizens in goggles are the cowboys. The town is governed by an iron-fisted sheriff, Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who sends his minions out on daily book-finding missions. Oddly enough, Carnegie’s desk is already stacked with books. We later learn he’s looking for one particular piece of literature he hopes will bring him great power... but only one copy is known to exist. Guess which book Eli reads daily during his down time?
Although The Book of Eli is one of those films you really want to like, it’s hard to come to terms with its egregious oversights and sinkhole-sized plot liberties. The movie occasionally teeters on greatness, especially from a visual standpoint, but nearly every brilliant moment is countered by five boneheaded errors. A lot of the suspense is sapped from the experience once we begin to realize Washington’s character is not going to be allowed to die. Bullets miss (or strike and ricochet?), knives penetrate but don’t destroy and no number of attackers will ever even come close to laying a hand on the whirling dervish. Many of the shortcomings are often explained away by the religious destiny that needs a more clever hook to be effective. And let’s not even get into the film’s meretricious ending which would have been so much more effective had it come a mere 10 minutes earlier.
Visually, The Book of Eli works. The camera of DP David Valdes, though not original, effectively immerses us in a hostile environment that, at times, seems puzzlingly beautiful and actually quite peaceful, despite the raw desolation. Also to the film’s credit are the spectacular action sequences from stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. Washington’s martial arts action is truly spectacular and often provides some of the most entertaining moments. But there are always those bullets that just won’t kill.
The performances by the supporting cast are worth mentioning too, especially that of Oldman who manages to entertain with the sweet/sour facade of his Carnegie. He’s almost over the top, but we can’t help being entertained every moment he’s on the screen. Mila Kunis is adequate as Solara, Eli’s eye-candy protégé, but we’re not sold yet on her persona as an action flick chick. Jennifer Beals is solid as Solara’s blind mother who provides some much-needed stability in such a hard-boiled world.
Had the Hughes Brothers run with a more simplified story, The Book of Eli might have worked in a big way. Instead, what could have become the Billy Jack or The Road Warrior for a new generation comes across as a heavy-handed, mélange of ideas that thinks its allusions to Fahrenheit 451 make it smart. The religious themes are sure to spark debate, but probably not in a good way.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for some brutal violence and language.)
Review also posted at www.franksreelreviews.com.