It was only a matter of time before someone took Denzel Washington’s confident teacher shtick (a recurring trait present in his performances all the way back to 1987’s Cry Freedom) and turned the actor into a bonafide preacher. Although the Hughes Brothers are far more interested in comic book appropriation of Spaghetti Westerns, Samurai films and Post Apocalyptic landscapes. It is a winning combination actually, even if the execution is far more John Carpenter than Sergio Leone or Akira Kurosawa. This is not a complaint, in fact, much like Carpenter’s scientist-meet-supernatural Prince of Darkness, it makes the blunt themes around the power of religion and spirituality play better to the material.
There is a dry wit buried in the presentation, of The Book of Eli from Gary Oldman’s town-boss, Carnagie (marvelously chewing scenery) sending illiterates out into the wilderness to find The Bible (they come back with The DaVinci Code and some Oprah magazines) to a brothel room adorned with a poster for A Boy and His Dog. L.Q. Jones’ 1975 cult post-apocalyptic flick is another underrated post-apocalyptic fable with a streak of jet-black humour.
Thirty years after nuclear war, presumably a holy war, as all the religious texts were torched sometime shortly thereafter, a long-in-the-tooth solitary walker, the proverbial Man With No Name (you can call him Zato… -err- Yojim… -err- just Eli) wanders into a one horse town in the desert to get a little fresh water and recharge his iPod (a scene involving a highly pleasurable Tom Waits cameo) but gets sucked into a war over the power of words/religion with Carnagie.
Carnegie has his sights set on empire expansion (he is introduced reading a biography of Mussolini) but feels that the whip and a monopoly on fresh water can only go so far in building an empire – in short, he needs a more powerful weapon. How about the Bible? (“Hearts and minds and all that.”) When he gets wind that Eli, who kills about half of his men in a bloody bar fight, happens to be carrying a copy. It’s a grandiose big old leather bound and locking type, not a pocket sized Gideon issue, commensurate with the budget and size of the film. Carnagie tries several approaches to obtain it before finally setting on heavy artillery. Eli, is reluctant to get involved, like a prophet (or stoic warrior monk), his focus is to stay the course in his journey “west.” But like any good western, he becomes entangled when Carnagie’s prized beauty (Mila Kunis) takes a liking to the good book or the good warrior (or both), and becomes a sort of acolyte slash damsel in distress.
The screenwriter, Greg Whitta is also the writer of comic books based on the Death, Jr. character (along with artist Mike Mignola), and the Hughes Brothers are no strangers to graphic novels, their last movie, back in 2001 was a fitfully successful version of Alan Moore’s Jack The Ripper saga, From Hell. They strike a precarious balance between full fledged comic-panel visuals and actually trying to say something about how belief is often subverted by religion. Before I open up a can of worms on the latter half of that previous sentence, perhaps it is that both belief and religion are throughout history co-opted by very bad men with ulterior motives. In this case Carnegie is self-aware enough in his own actions to request the righteous Eli to prey for him. It is to the films credit that Oldman says this with conviction, not as a gag, even as he pushes on in his greedy quest.
The book of Eli is not too deep or even particularly revelatory in its thesis. And yet it packs in a fair share of loaded symbols and ideas better than, say, the Spierig Brothers’ Daybreakers). For this type of R-rated action movie, that is enough probably enough. I mean to say we are not talking The Road here, and nothing ever feels as hopeless (or as Owen Gleiberman says, “human”) as that film. Genre broad strokes and big high-energy sequences (and is not above a twist or two which admittedly I did not see coming despite all the ‘signs’ being present), The Book of Eli is solid stuff.
The only big stumbling point in the film is Mila Kunis who may look hot in a pair of aviator sunglasses, but never feels to co-exist in the grimy, emaciated world built by the Hughes Brothers. Why the actress was made up to look like she just stepped out of a Lancôme cover shoot for every scene and speak like a suburban mall girl is baffling. Jennifer Beals, who plays Kunis’s blind mother, a semi-willing squeeze to Gary Oldman’s Al Swearengen urges, fares far better. One could even say that she steals the few scenes she shares with Oldman –a rare and difficult thing to do when Oldman is in wild and crazy “Luc Besson” villain mode.
A handsome production with oodles of colourful details in the margins (including fun walk-on characters from Michael Gambon, Malcolm McDowell and the aforementioned Tom Waits) make this the type of pop-corn cinema I wish would be made more often. Props to the ultimate homage to the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. If you liked that one, you’ll probably like this one.