I must confess that midway through The Book of Eli's entire 118-minute run time I found myself secretly wondering if, at the end, Tom Cruise wasn't going to show up and we would learn that this was, in fact, the long awaited sequel to Battlefield Earth and this way overly long, thunderously melodramatic and mind-numbingly self important flick would end up being about the saving of the life works of good ole' L.Ron Hubbard and Hollywood's pet religion, the Church of Scientology.
Despite my surprise and joy at seeing an actor of Denzel Washington's stature tackle a project with such "saving Christianity" overtones to it, by the end of The Book of Eli even this Church of the Brethren minister was ready for the Bible to be destroyed. If this is how much of Hollywood interprets Christianity, then it's no wonder so many turn to the comforts of the Church of Scientology.
In The Book of Eli, Washington plays Eli (you did realize that, right?), a self-acknowledged prophet of sorts walking on a 30-year journey across a United States ravaged by the flash of nuclear war that decimated civilization presumably over a grand religious war. While the character of Eli is revealed slowly over the course of the film with a certain pizzazz, I must say, he reveals himself to be on a holy mission to head west in an effort to save "the book" that will save humanity. As he nears his final destination, he encounters a small town that has seemingly been built out of nothing and led by the mischievous Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a ring leader who believes in the power of "the book" and has been spending the past 30 years sending out bands of thugs in search of it. Carnegie dwells with his beautiful girlfriend (Jennifer Beals), who was blinded by the flash, and her young daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis).
It goes without saying that Carnegie and his seemingly endless band of thugs will attempt to win over Eli then, when that fails, to simply destroy him and acquire control of the book. If you've seen the film's trailers, then it also goes without saying that there will be much blood spilled along the way and the religious war that led to the destruction of civilization will ultimately lead to a religious war that will supposedly lead to the salvation of what is left of civilization.
If your head is already spinning, then you've acquired a sense of what you will experience while viewing The Book of Eli, a film directed by the Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society" and "From Hell") but without their usual knack for visually arresting films and for delving deeper inside the characters they create. The Book of Eli, on the other hand, is simply another post-apocalyptic road movie nowhere near appealing as The Road Warrior or even the vastly superior 2009 film The Road. The Hughes Brothers attempt to build the intensity of The Book of Eli with scene after scene of Eli himself going whupass on bands of ill-meaning post-apocalyptic thugs who seemingly terrorize every woman they meet and annihilate everything in their path. Yet even when we are introduced to characters that we actually enjoy, like a lovely older couple who've managed to survive in an isolated farmhouse, we are given only a few moments to enjoy them.
Washington does what he can as Eli, serving up a pleasing performance despite the inexplicable incorporation of numerous slo-mo scenes, absolutely unnecessary facial close-ups seemingly designed to stress the importance of the moment and the simple fact that Eli seems to spend most of the film either going whupass or simply reading "the book." Unfortunately, Washington isn't exactly given much to work with having Mila Kunis along as a younger, semi-comic relief road companion along the way. Kunis, who is a fine comic actress, comes off as primarily histrionic in her more dramatic scenes and her final closing scenes are so laughably melodramatic that it felt like we'd stumbled into the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel.
On the other hand, Washington's scenes with the always delightful Gary Oldman are quite delightful despite Oldman's godawful make-up and the obsession of the Hughes Brothers in focusing the camera on it. While his closing scene is a bit over the top, Oldman builds a baddie like no other and creates a memorable character out of thin air.
It's difficult to determine exactly what the problem is with The Book of Eli, Gary Whitta's nonsensical, twisting without purpose story and dialogue or The Hughes Brothers' relentless dedication to stressing the importance of every word, every action with such plodding intentionality that it feels like we're watching a two-year-old reading "See Spot Run" for the very first time.
The Book of Eli undoubtedly has an audience, especially among those who are connoisseurs of Denzel Washington and those who will appreciate Don Burgess's wide lensing and Gae Buckley's distinctive production design. Special effects are generally utilized well, though certain scenes are dreadfully created including a distracting rowing scene towards a recognizable and famous island. The original music from Atticus Ross stakes an early claim to the year's most irritating original score with its unnecessarily thunderous drum rolls and rolling waves of instrumentals.
Supporting performances, brief though they may be, are utilized well including nice turns by a wary Tom Waits, a feisty Michael Gambon with Frances de la Tour as his rather hospitable wife.
While The Book of Eli is far from disastrous, it is a missed opportunity considering The Road covered much of the same ground with far greater success, richer character development and a more satisfying, though infinitely darker, storyline. The first film produced by Denzel's son John David Washington, it's easy to see what attracted Washington to the project. It's simply a shame that the final product doesn't equal the film's noble statement and grand ambitions.
Closer in tone to Battlefield Earth than The Road, The Book of Eli is the kind of film one doesn't expect from Allen and Albert Hughes...a standard issue road flick for the post-apocalyptic world. Diehard Denzel fans, by all means, check out The Book of Eli. The rest of you? Journey on over to check out The Road.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic