It’s not hard to do a post-apocalyptic action movie. You take your actors, dress them in stylish ragged layers, you film in the desert somewhere, you wreck some cars, and you’ve got yourself a movie, right? Well, while it’s a pretty easy formula to do, it’s a hard genre to do right. For every Mad Max, there’s The Postman. For every 28 Days Later, there’s an Escape From The Bronx. However, you can put your fears to rest when it comes to The Book Of Eli.
Thirty years ago, the war tore a hole in the sky and left America a cannibalistic wasteland of roaming nomads who rape and plunder without mercy. Wandering through the desert is a lone man with a backpack, a machete, and a very special book. Eli (Denzel Washington) is a man with a goal. That goal is to get to the west coast, no matter what happens. He’s carrying what he says is the last remaining copy of The Holy Bible. (I’d feel that’s a bit of a spoiler, but that fact is blatantly given away in the marketing for the film, so I imagine everyone knows.)
Between Eli and his destination is a lot of wasteland, with one notable exception. Enter the tin pot dictatorship of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules his Old Western fiefdom with an iron fist, a gang of scruffy nameless-yet-distinctive thugs (including main thug Redridge played by Ray Stevenson), and a ruthless ability to use anyone and everything to get his way. Including his own wife, Claudia (Jennifer Beals, whom I totally did not recognize) and her daughterm Solara (Mila Kunis). Carnegie wants the book, and it’s up to Eli to defend it.
And does he ever defend it.
Five years ago, this would have been a Wesley Snipes vehicle. Black man uses a bladed weapon to hack through an army of thugs? Try not putting Wesley Snipes in this movie! However, thanks to Snipes’ tax problems and general descent into Steven Seagal territory, the role falls to Denzel Washington, who lends to the movie his peculiar tone and an acting range that elevates the material beyond what it should otherwise have been.
Not that the script is bad; it’s actually quite good considering it’s Gary Whitta’s first sold screenplay (apparently, he was an editor of a technology magazine before entering the movie world), but there’s just something about Denzel that is really captivating. This guy could make a detergent commercial enthralling, and when you consider that Denzel trained with Bruce Lee protégé, Don Inosant, and did all his own fight scenes and stunts (including a pretty damn good 16-on-1 fight scene), it gets even better.
The film has a really distinct style, thanks to direction from tag-team directors Allen and Albert Hughes. While the pair went off the rails a bit after the box office failing of From Hell, they seem to have recovered their form very well here. Say what you want to about them, the brothers Hughes know how to frame a really good shot.
The movie is torn from the spaghetti western style book, with lots of long shots of Eli walking through the desert, gunfights in the middle of town, and, of course, some damsel in distress action provided by Solara. It is a little slow to start, and the last five or 10 minutes could have been cut off so as not to lose the impact of a big, legitimately surprising reveal at the end. Once it gets started, though, the movie moves along quite nicely from scene to scene, sprinkling the combat around the plot very effectively.
The Book Of Eli isn’t a revolutionary story; you’ve seen it all before, but rarely is it put together this well. The movie’s advantages are the incredible leading actors (seriously, Denzel Washington AND Gary Oldman?!), the well-staged fight scenes, and the gorgeously bleak New Mexican desert.
There’s a great message in there about the various ways people use belief as a crutch for their own motivations, should you want to see it, but even if you’re not interested, there’s still an awesome actor wielding a machete while another awesome actor evils it up in intellectually malevolent style.
If you like post-apocalyptic action like I do, The Book Of Eli will not be a disappointing 118 minutes. In the hands of the wrong crew, this could have been crap. However, this movie was in the right hands all along.
Stylish and well-acted all the way through, with a secret smart streak. A rare, enjoyable combination.
US correspondent Ron Hogan is in the market for a face-shredding blade and a ragged set of leathers. When the cannibal bikers come, he’ll be ready. Find more by Ron at his blog, Subtle Bluntness and daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.