The Book of Eli
Mix one cup of post-apocalypse, a heaped tablespoon of religion, a teaspoon of highly choreographed action, and a dash of self-importance. Bake for 118 minutes, and you will have The Book of Eli on your plate. The Book of Eli, in the first couple bites, teeters on the knife-edge between good and smug, but eventually you realize it doesn’t taste that bad, despite their being a little too much cheese. A dish perhaps best for delivery, but you won’t be disappointed going out to eat it, either.
Denzel Washington plays the titular nomad, a stoic traveler in a world that, at least a generation before, has been ravaged by nuclear war which irradiated the land and left the survivors as blind cannibals. Eli travels west for reasons unknown even to him, while he dispatches groups of would-be highway-men and eats the occasional cat. At night, before falling into a light sleep, Eli reads from a book he keeps safely guarded in his backpack. The book, which the movie makes almost immediately clear is The Book, is the obsession of brothel owner and makeshift town-mayor, Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie explains that in the post-apocalyptic aftermath of a religion-fueled war, people burned all the bibles they could find so the past could not be repeated.
But Carnegie knows that some had to have survived, and so he regularly sends his mercenaries raping and pillaging across the countryside in search of books. The bible, once he finds it, will help Carnegie wield power over the new society he hopes to create. When Eli finds himself in Carnegie’s town to refill his water, the two clash, and it isn’t long until Carnegie, through the help of his mistress’s daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), discovers what Eli has been hiding. A chase across the desolate countryside ensues, culminating in a surprisingly fresh and satisfying climax.
The Hughes Brothers, famous for 1993’s Menace II Society, have made a solid film here. The characters are complex, and the actors, of course, do them justice. The story itself is not too simple, nor too complicated, and feels organic as it unwinds. The dialogue is above average for a film like this, and sometimes even clever and quotable. The special effects are spectacular in that you hardly notice them, even though much of the vivid background of the movie was done with CGI, much like 2006 sword and sandal actioner 300. Everything is gray, dusty, filthy, and filled with careful details, from Eli’s old iPod to the KFC handiwipes he uses to barter. What really takes the film to the next level is the camera work. Nearly every shot is done creatively, yet not in such a way as it detracts from the rest of the film. The movie is visually stunning, compelling, and entertaining.
However, the scenes of action, all highly choreographed, feel tacked on, as if the suits with the checkbooks suggested that there must be action to sell tickets. Thus, we have scenes of Eli effortlessly slicing up dozens of men at a time with his ultra-sharp machete. This quickly evolves into gun fights. But later, during some of the most climactic scenes, there is very little action to be found. The movie feels unbalanced at times. There is not nearly enough action to call this an action movie, but too much action for a thoughtful drama. As it is, I view the action mostly as spectacle, much of it outside the scope of what the film is trying to achieve. Although this is my biggest gripe, the film also suffers from poorly defined relationships between the characters, and although Denzel is perfect as Eli his motives and personality traits are not always clear. It also could be argued that that other elements of the movie were tacked-on, such as Mila Kunis’s character, or the cannibals that are so often alluded to but never really seen in action. Finally, while the message about religion is clear, it is nothing new, nor is it handled with any attempt at subtlety.
But, in the end, The Book of Eli is just one of those weird foods that you don’t think you would enjoy so much but you just do. Sure, it’s not good to have at every meal, or even every day, but every once in a while it is nice to find a tasty dish composed of ingredients that by all rights should make it disgusting. Your plate is clean and you have had time to digest. You think back to what you have consumed, and, as is so seldom with dishes like these, you feel no regret. Bon appetit.
Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
Director: The Hughes Brothers
Distributor: Warner Brothers Pictures, Columbia Pictures
Runtime: 118 minutes