Book of Eli, The

Action and drama in post-apocalyptic tale

Main Cast: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis

Director: Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes

The Book of Eli begins by showing us a clearly post-apocalyptic world.  Lots of ash, dead stuff, abandoned cars, black and white-ish cast to the landscape (the apocalypse frequently seems to kill color).   We see Eli (Denzel Washington) going about the nasty business of survival as he hunts and eats a cat and washes with KFC wet-naps.  We also get to see some of this new world’s bad guys – the typical violent, evil, thieving thugs hell bent on making the lives of other survivors miserable (and short).

Eli, however, is anything but typical.  He has a book (as well as some very fun quasi-super powers).  There aren’t all that many books left, and even fewer people who can actually read them, and this book is of singular importance to Eli and one of the evil-doers trying to grab power amidst the grubby despair.  Carnegie (Gary Oldman) has built a town.  It’s a pathetic, murderous, wretched town, but he owns it and controls its greatest asset – water.  He wants more.  He wants that book, he knows it can be a powerful weapon.  Eli might be solitary, but we know from the beginning that he is anything but helpless.  Epic battle between good and evil ensues.

The setting is well-worn and the book angle is predictable and trite.  But it doesn’t matter, the movie is better than it has any right to be based on its core kernel of an idea.  The first good move by writer Gary Whitta and directors Albert and Allen Hughes is to include lots of action, turning the movie from somber drama to action adventure.  Denzel Washington is an excellent actor and when he softly utters a threat, which he then carries out with a large sword, you know that scene is going to wail.  And it does – as do so many others in which Eli defends himself, the book or others he meets on his journey.  The violence is plentiful but fitting and not gratuitously gory.  The movie deserves its R rating, but it doesn’t devolve into a slasher at any point.

Since Washington produced the movie, I guess it isn’t really “brilliant casting” that has him playing Eli.  But the man does understand his strengths and the screenplay and direction play to them.  He’s charismatic but quiet, eccentric and driven while maintaining an innocent faith in his mission to bring the book somewhere our west where he is sure he will find its safe haven.  He plays his role with passion in the action scenes, the contemplation of his quest and his faith in its ultimate success.  His subdued intensity fits well into this world where excess is the basis of evil.

The clear Christian tenets that serve as supporting structure for much of The Book of Eli could have turned me off, but they are well played and used with a great degree of ambiguity and room for interpretation.  There’s no question what that book is, but there’s no evangelism, either.  Why the book is important varies depending on who wants it.  The twists and turns in its journey west are interesting and open a whole world of possible explanations, religious and otherwise.  I particularly like that one of the ways religion is used is to supply our hero with something akin to super-powers.  It’s a rather playful use for a heady topic and it is done with panache and an impressive amount of righteous carnage.

The supporting cast does an admirable job with their filthy roles.  I mean literally filthy, everyone here is dirty, all the time.  Oldman plays bad guy with his usual flair.  Jennifer Beals shows up as a blind woman living under the thumb of Oldman with her daughter, played by the increasingly impressive Mila Kunis.  This girl seems to have the goods.  She’s gorgeous and can carry a fairly weighty role opposite Denzel in his own movie.  That takes both talent and guts.

I have no idea why I put this movie on my Netflix queue, but I’m glad I did.  I liked it a heck of a lot more than I was expecting.  Washington is both fierce and sympathetic and the story fleshes out very well despite the outcome being predictable and the post-apocalyptic premise worn.  The devil is in the details in The Book of Eli and the details are terrific.  The movie is a nice mix of action, adventure and almost secular reverence.

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