There’s another movie coming out this month that I’ll review a little later that I’m going to slam for the powerful lack of originality and the perfunctory way in which it borrows from any number of much better movies. But just because something is familiar doesn’t automatically make it bad, and “The Book Of Eli” is a film that certainly treads some familiar road, but in doing so, still manages to deliver enough entertainment that I feel good about recommending it to audiences.
Telling a story of a lone hero in a post-Apocalyptic landscape can be done for the arthouse crowd (this winter’s “The Road” is probably the most high-minded example of the genre) or for the exploitation crowd (see every single movie in the ’80s that ripped off George Miller’s “The Road Warrior”), and “The Book Of Eli” manages to land somewhere between the two. The film seems to have something on its mind at the start, and it ends on a wry note that suggests a more nimble wit than the genre is used to, but along the way, things fall into a routine pattern as Eli (Denzel Washington) and Carnegie (Gary Oldman) find themselves at odds over a single copy of a single book.
Gary Whitta’s script does not play the identity of the book as a giant secret, as I feared it might. Hell, even the billboards give it away at this point. There are some big reveals built in, but they don’t tie in directly to the idea that Eli possesses the last Bible in existence. That’s handed to the audience fairly early. Instead, the big stuff is all character-oriented, so it doesn’t feel like it’s supposed to be a lightning-bolt to the forehead moment. There are some very evident influences on the film that range from Japanese movies like “Yojimbo” and “Zatoichi” to Sergio Leone, films which obviously exist on a continuum anyway.
Eli exists as a sort of proto-Man With No Name, with only one goal, the protection of this book. There are hints that he is genuinely in touch with a higher power, and he is almost perfectly matched against Carnegie, who wants to use the Bible to control the population of his town and, presumably, the world outside his town as well. It’s a broad strokes sort of movie, because the more you think about Carnegie’s plan or the likelihood that every single copy of the Bible would be somehow erased from existence, the less it seems plausible. Taken as a binary dramatic set-up, though, it works, and a big part of that is because of the casting.
Denzel Washington has always had a strong sense of character integrity in his work, but he’s played surprisingly few action leads over the course of his career. I’m not sure how he managed to avoid so many of the easy traps that leading men in Hollywood seem to fall into, but it’s sort of cool to see him break out this sort of crazy, controlled martial arts this late in his career. Thanks to the great work by fight master Jeff Imada and his team, Denzel seems powerful but believable. He’s a human-scale superhero here, and Gary Oldman reigns in his own most excessive impulses, as if in response to the tone that Denzel establishes. Ray Stevenson, playing one of Carnegie’s main henchmen, is intimidating, and his work here makes me hope that filmmakers figure out exactly what to do with him before he’s too old to keep doing it.
If anyone’s miscast, it’s Mila Kunis, and that’s unfortunate. I don’t think it’s her work that is the problem so much as the fact that she just plain looks too good for the world of the movie. We’re supposed to be dealing with a world where an entire generation has grown up without any memory of the world before, with resources at a bare minimum, having to do anything to survive. And yet, she looks pretty much just like Mila Kunis but with a scowl. It’s a shame, too. She’s capable of good work when she’s got the material, and it seems like a concession to commercial thinking that hobbles the film.
I love the HD photography, and actually didn’t realize it was shot with the Red camera as I was watching it. The 2.35:1 compositions and the blast-bleached look is my favorite work by Don Burgess since he shot “Contact” in 1997. He works well with the Hughes Brothers, who have a really strong sense of geography in all their action, and who do a nice job with tone overall. By the time the film reaches its quietly ironic ending, it feels like they’ve absolutely re-established themselves as directors who should be in the running for any major project out there right now. I don’t think “The Book Of Eli” is an amazing film, but the things that work add up, and in the month or so since I saw the film, it’s lingered.
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