Denzel Washington as Eli
Gary Oldman as Carnegie
Mila Kunis as Solara
Ray Stevenson as Redridge
Jennifer Beals as Claudia
Evan Jones as Martz
Joe Pingue as Hoyt
Frances de la Tour as Martha
Michael Gambon as George
Tom Waits as Engineer
Chris Browning as Hijack Leader
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
Like a cross between “The Road Warrior” and “Deadwood,” “The Book of Eli” is rarely as good as either, more of a generic post-Apocalypse movie with a few cool action scenes and a mostly ridiculous premise.
After a devastating event that leaves the earth a barren wasteland, a lone man (Denzel Washington) carries an important sacred relic to a faraway location, but when he comes across a heavily-populated town, he falls foul of the local overlord Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who wants the book and will do anything to get it.
Clearly the biggest hurdle facing the first movie from the Hughes Brothers since their Jack the Ripper thriller “From Hell,” is that it’s coming out so soon after John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” As the movie opens with Denzel Washington as an unnamed wanderer–he’s only attached to the name “Eli” much later in the movie–in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you can’t help but notice the similarity in the visuals with a far superior film. As much as “The Book of Eli” tries to offer a similar level of intelligence, it might have been better off sticking to the action, which is used more to distract from the weak storytelling.
Only the first fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie resembles “The Road,” since once Washington’s character gets to the town overrun by gangs controlled by Gary Oldman’s Carnegie, clearly meant to resemble the classic Westerns of loners coming to clean up a town, we get to the meat of the story. Carnegie thinks the book Eli is carrying will allow him to the take control of the illiterate people roaming what’s left of the world, and Eli finds a supporter and confidante in Mila Kunis’ Solara, a young bartender who has become indentured to Carnegie due to his control over her blind mother, played by Jennifer Beals.
With the number of great post-apocalyptic movies we’ve seen over the years, it never feels like “The Book of Eli” has that much more to offer storywise, except for its obvious Western tropes and its premise of a “sacred book” that everyone is trying to get. Not that it’s difficult to figure out the book’s “secret,” but all the talk of how powerful this book is as a weapon feels like it’s pandering not only to those who regularly read and cite it but also to those who don’t believe in it. (Figured it out yet? Yes, it’s that simple.) The film’s marketing is deceptive because you’re given the impression this is first and foremost an action movie set in a dystopian future ala “Mad Max,” but instead, the movie gets bogged down in exposition about the significance of the central plot device.
That said, the Hughes are amazing visual directors with a flair for creating exciting action scenes, whether it’s violent limb-severing fights, extravagant shootouts or just blowing things up real good. These are clearly the movie’s strongest moments, but they’re also scattered throughout the movie, the rest of it involving the characters jabbering about many things we can mostly figure out on our own. We never really learn what happened to the world or how any of the characters got to the point where they were. One of the more disconcerting aspects of this world is how violence against women has become so common place, as we watch how every single female character is in danger of being raped, robbed and/or killed at one point in the movie. Even so, the reason the movie never quite achieves any of the intelligence it’s striving for is because the quality of writing and acting are just never up to snuff.
Washington does a satisfactory job with a mostly-silent character that brings back fond memories of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name,” but he’s surrounded by actors who just aren’t on his level except for Oldman, the only one who can effortlessly go toe-to-toe with Washington, even if he sometimes takes things overboard as the baddie. There are a lot of weaker actors playing the vandals Washington meets and kills while on the road, but the most severe miscasting is that of Mila Kunis in a dramatic role she just doesn’t have the skill to sell. The many quieter scenes between Washington and Kunis are dull at best and aggravating at worst because they are so badly matched. As nice as it is seeing Beals back on screen, it’s a fairly unnecessary role and her performance is relatively flat. Likewise, chronic scene-stealer Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour attempt shaky (presumably) Southern accents as an odd elderly couple the duo meet on their journey, but they’re both sorely wasted since their characters only appear for a few brief minutes, not enough time to have much of an impact.
Even if you buy the ridiculous premise about the power of this “book,” you’re still likely to get thrown by the even more ludicrous plot twist in the last ten minutes that will have you questioning just about every aspect of the movie leading up until that point.
The Bottom Line:
Neither the great production design nor the cool action scenes can make up for the relatively weak and generic storytelling with character types we’ve already seen far too many times before as well as a ludicrous plot twist that’s just plain aggravating.