THE BOOK OF ELI, 2010
In a post-apocalyptic United States, a lone man (Washington) fights his way across the country in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.
CLICK HERE and watch 2009 MOVIES FOR FREE!
A little bit "Road Warrior," a little bit "I Am Legend" and a little bit long, "The Book of Eli" is a decent start to the year but falls apart under the weight of its ambitions.
Somewhere off in the vast post-apocalyptic California wilderness, comes Eli (Denzel Washington), walking through the unending desert and ash, search for the end of his 30 year journey to 'the west.'
The exact nature of the apocalypse is left your imagination, touched off through some sort of religious struggle that went so far overboard religion itself was banished from the human imagination, with every holy book people could get their hands on burned away to keep it from happening again.
Which is why Eli is carrying either the most important, or most dangerous, item in the world around in his backpack – the last remaining King James Bible.
These kinds of things always require a pretty fair heaping of salt to take seriously. You have to get past the wastelands and the fantasy aspects, like the fact that it's taken Eli 30 years to walk across America (how slow exactly is he walking?) in order to focus on what's important.
The Hughes Brothers ("From Hell") want to tell an allegory about the strengths and dangers of faith, which can be an extremely dull and self-righteous pill to swallow at the best of times. Realizing this, they've done their best to cloak it in a veil of limb-slicing, gun-battling, wild west-mythologizing in order to make the medicine go down easily.
It almost works. Denzel Washington is probably one of the few actors who can keep this kind of thing going and help you along the rough patches. He knows exactly to fill Eli with the kind of blind faith that would keep him walking no matter what without getting maudlin or preachy. At the same time, it's not a stretch for him to wipe out a bar of hitchhikers single-handedly as well. Not many people can pull both off.
But he's also almost alone in that regard as well, and a movie like "Book of Eli" doesn't fare well in that kind of vacuum. The story is ultimately a bit too weak to exist on its own, it needs actors to make it real and "Book of Eli" doesn't always seem to realize that.
Gary Oldman has about two settings as an actor, understated excellence or "The Professional" and he's in full scenery-chewing mode as Carnegie, the small-town despot who realizes how much power religion can give over the masses but is smart enough to realize he doesn't have what it takes by himself to pull that off. But if he could just find a bible, he could probably fake it.
The Hughes Brothers and first time screen writer Gary Whitta want to turn the film into a kind of chess match between the two, to show case the tension between the heights and depths that religion can lead men too, but they can't quite get there.
Mostly that's because they're burdened (or they've burdened themselves – always hard to say in Hollywood) with Mila Kunas who remains completely unbelievable in action movies or when saying anything really intense. It's just not in her range and she should stop being put in that position.
Washington by himself, though, could probably overcome most of those faults and the first of the film that's focused mainly on him is a piece of post-apocalyptic adventure as we've had in a while. It mostly comes across like a really long Twilight Zone episode, just with more bitchin' action sequences, until the end when the narrative gets away from everyone and takes on a life of its own like some strange mutation.
Which is movie's real fault. The meld between allegorical drama and action film isn't as neat as it needs to be to make both halves work, and it comes pretty handily undone in the last 30 minutes. The climax of the film happens at the end of the 2nd act and then it's a loooong dénouement to the end. It's an interesting way to do things and adds some twists to the end, but it also robs "The Book of Eli" of any dramatic tension.
It's not a bad idea for a film, not particularly original but well done enough to get over those flaws initially. But the loss of tension in the final act is a problem no amount of film charisma can get over. There's no reason to stick with Aristotle's unity's if you don't have to, but there's no reason to break them if you don't have to either, and "Book of Eli" is a perfect example of that.