Friday, July 2, 2010

"The Book of Eli" (2010)

Starring Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman
Written by Gary Whitta
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes

Fuckin' traffic...
Denzel Washington should do more action movies.  He's got the gravitas to pull off badassness and also give a good dramatic performance, two things that are crucial in the best action pictures.  "The Book of Eli," however, is not one of the best action pictures.  It's not a bad one, but it presents heady ideas that it doesn't give enough exploration to so that it mostly comes across as an exercise in style over substance.

Eli (Washington) is a man on a mission... from God.  He walks across a desolate, ruined landscape, alone, with only the pack on his back.  He must scrounge for food and water.  He must avoid roving packs of hijackers and cannibals.  In his pack he carries the book, the last known copy of the Bible, and he must take it west to where it will be protected.  One day, he comes across a small community where he stops to charge his battery and refill his canteen.  There he meets Carnegie (Oldman), another man like himself who is old enough to remember the old world before "The Flash."  Carnegie has gangs out searching the countryside for a particular book - guess which one?

Once Carnegie learns that Eli is carrying a copy of the Bible, he figures he must do whatever he can to get his hands on it.  Carnegie knows that in the world before the war, the power of the Bible was used to rule over many, and that's power he wants for himself.  Eli manages to escape with the book, and with Solara (Kunis), a young girl trying to escape Carnegie's tyrannical reign.  Carnegie's men attempt to kill Eli, but it seems that he's harder to kill than any normal man.  Is he protected by God?  Or is he just a man, as Carnegie insists.  To what lengths will Carnegie go to possess the book?

"The Book of Eli" is a grimy, post-apocalyptic adventure.  It's well-shot, with blown out contrasts giving an appropriate desolation to the landscape.  The action sequences are also impressive, with lots of interesting camera movements that really let you drink in the action, instead of letting everything get lost in shakiness.  The climactic action sequence in a remote farmhouse is actually quite technically impressive, as it appears to have been done with one long take.  Obviously, it hasn't, since the camera moves through bullet holes in walls and such, but it's still a very cool effect.

The script, however, isn't quite as impressive as the technical production.  The story has intriguing ideas about the effects of religion (indeed, "the book" is said to be the basis for the war that ravaged society) but it doesn't really explore these ideas outside of a couple of perfunctory or expository conversations.  Eli only spends a few seconds trying to explain the concept of faith to Solara, and quotes from the Bible at times, and prays over his meals.  "The Book of Eli" could be a deep exploration of the meaning of faith versus religion, and how the power of the word of God can corrupt impure men.  But it's not, and as such, as entertaining as it is, it feels like a missed opportunity for that reason.  The ultimate 'twist' at the end of the film regarding the Bible that Eli carries around, and Eli himself, is rather clever, but it would carry more dramatic weight if the rest of the film had more depth to support it.

Still, it is entertaining.  Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman are both exceptionally talented performers who are fun to watch, almost regardless of what roles they're playing.  Here, Oldman does his usual charismatic, semi-psychotic villain, but even though we've seen this performance from him a zillion times, it never seems to get old.  Washington is equally adept at being a man who seems both weary and driven at the same time.   He also proves himself more than capable handling the film's fight sequences, handing out mass quantities of ass-whoopery on the unwashed hordes.

The details of the world are also quite entertaining.  Eli carries around a barely functioning old iPod, and a battery he uses to power it which must be recharged periodically.  He washes using old handiwipes from KFC.  People check to see if others are cannibals by looking to see if their hands shake.  Everyone wears sunglasses to protect their eyes from dangerous sunlight.

And as I said, the action sequences are pretty excellent.  In the end, "The Book of Eli" is worth watching, as the cast is entertaining and the action is cool, but one can't help but wish that there was a bit more substance to go with all this sweet style.