The ‘80s used to be crowded with movies like “The Book of Eli” – stories about a lone warrior wandering a post-apocalyptic America, fighting tyrannical bad guys and rescuing damsels in distress he stumbles across on his journeys. Those films weren’t really concerned with much more than the basics – get in, get out, and maybe grab a sequel or two. “The Book of Eli”, the first full film by the brothers Hughes since 2001’s “From Hell”, is a throwback movie in many respects, though the film does seem to have some ambitions that those other films never bothered themselves with. When all is said and done, I can’t really tell you with any certainty if Eli’s quest is any more worthy than, say, Max’s in “The Road Warrior” or Nomad’s in “Steel Dawn”. I suppose what you take away from “Eli” will be entirely up to you.
“The Book of Eli” stars Denzel Washington as one of scattered survivors of a nuclear war that wiped out most of humanity 30 years ago, leaving the world bleached dry, with water now a precious commodity. Eli is in possession of a book that he believes will restore mankind and save them from the dog-eat-dog existence that has befallen what remains of society. During his trip “West” (he has no exact destination, only a direction), Eli runs afoul of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the self-declared savior of a small town where the denizens do his bidding because Carnegie knows the location of plentiful water. Like Eli, Carnegie is a survivor of the “old world”, before the war, and has been sending men out into the wastelands in search of one very specific book. When Eli stumbles into his nest, Carnegie discovers that Eli’s book is also the one he’s been searching for, and a bloody battle between the two men for possession of the book ensues.
(Note: You probably already know what Eli’s book is, but in case you don’t, or do not wish to know, I won’t spoil it here. But for those curious, you can go here for the secrets, though honestly, it’s not much of a secret because the book’s identity was already revealed in one of the movie’s trailers.)
Written and directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, “The Book of Eli” is a pretty violent movie, with two signature action scenes that don’t skimp on the blood and brutality. The film also features a couple of nifty gun battles, but otherwise doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre in terms of action set pieces. Despite boasting a Hollywood budget, “Eli” suffers a bit from what I can only call generic background, meaning it just doesn’t look as expensive as a movie that costs $80 million should look. The lack of Hollywood gloss is surprising, but does fit with the drab, leftover world the film is trying to portray, so in that respect it can be excused. Plus, all those lingering shots of clouds and overhead flybys of barren landscapes look really cool.
“The Book of Eli” does have one very important ace in the hole – Denzel Washington. The actor spent a lot of time rehearsing the film’s two major fight scenes, and it shows. Washington’s Eli looks the part of a badass post-apocalyptic loner, and he fights like one, too. There is a nice style to Eli’s fighting, an economy of motion that gets the job done without too many flourishes. I would have liked to know more about Eli’s past, how he developed such a deadly fighting style, but apparently the Hughes brothers do not share my curiosity. Also, if you expect “The Book of Eli” to have more action than what you’ve already seen in the trailers, you’ll be disappointed. What is there are well done and slickly executed, and Washington is very impressive, but the film is not wall-to-wall action.
I am of two minds on “The Book of Eli”. On one hand it’s got everything I demand in my post-apocalyptic action movies – action, a cool leading man, and some nice eye candy – but on the other hand the film feels … lacking. I can only point to the film’s lack of a climactic final battle would have capped things off nicely, but that isn’t where the Hughes are going, or ever intended to go, it seems. The final 20 minutes or so of “Eli” is very muted, as Eli’s quest comes to a head and salvation (or in some cases, destruction) finds the various characters not at the point of a gun or the sharp edge of a knife, but in their little corners of the world, all alone. This is a very solemn (but somehow appropriate) way to end the movie, and you have to give the brothers credit for sticking to their guns because I’m sure they got more than one studio note asking, “Um, guys, where’s the movie’s climactic final battle?”
Denzel Washington is excellent as Eli, and he’s ably supported by a deliciously evil Gary Oldman as the wild card Carnegie, a man who can smooth talk you when he wants something, but get suddenly violent when the honey doesn’t work. Ray Stevenson (“Punisher: War Zone”), as Carnegie’s right-hand man (and not-so-secret admirer of Mila Kunis’ Solara) actually has a couple of effective moments that belies his character’s “main henchman” description. I would have liked to see more interaction between him and Solara, or at least, learn their history, if any. The women are represented by Jennifer Beals and Kunis, two women who look way too clean for citizens of a post-nuclear world where every other woman in the film looks beaten and aged. Of course, some of that can be explained away by Carnegie having protected them all this time, but even so, they stick out, especially Kunis. Hopefully after “The Book of Eli” and “Max Payne”, studio heads will stop casting the diminutive and squeaky-voiced Kunis in action heroine roles. Really, guys, it ain’t gonna happen. As in, ever.
“The Book of Eli” is more than a capable entry into a genre that has been ignored for too long (if you’re a fan like me, anyway), but man, did it take me for a loop towards the end. There is an almost lyrical quality to the movie that belies its blistering sun-scorched landscape, or its drab, colorless environment. Hats off to the Hughes for maintaining the film’s action-free final act. I suppose in a way you can call what they did a huge leap of faith, the thinking being that audiences will accept “Eli’s” ending because it very much works in context with the story they’re telling. Of course, that’s up to you to decide. I found it strangely appropriate, but would have still liked one final bang to cap things off anyway, but that’s just me.
Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes (director) / Gary Whitta (screenplay)
CAST: Denzel Washington … Eli
Gary Oldman … Carnegie
Mila Kunis … Solara
Ray Stevenson … Redridge
Jennifer Beals … Claudia
Frances de la Tour … Martha
Michael Gambon … George