Monday, January 18, 2010

Movie Review: "The Book of Eli"

"The Book of Eli" may be one of the strangest film hybrids I've seen in awhile. A mashup Western/Post-Apocalyptic actioner, the R-rated film from The Hughes Brothers ("Menace II Society") has a plot that will likely earn a following among religious filmgoers, so long as they can handle a protagonist who slices, dices and decapitates in following his mission from God.

If it sounds like I'm knocking the movie, I'm not. While I always fear the worst when I see any film released in January or February, the truth is that "The Book of Eli" is a fun, thrilling little action flick that actually has some interesting ideas at its core. It's not going to revolutionize the genre or stand alongside the likes of "The Road Warrior," but I can guarantee it's more fun than "The Spy Next Door."

Denzel Washington stars as Eli, but he may as well be kin to Clint Eastwood's Man-With-No-Name. Eli has been roaming the nation for 30 years, ever since nuclear war devastated the landscape. Eli is heading west. While I'm pretty sure that walking across the country can be done in less than three decades, Eli seems to know what he's doing: after all, he's on a mission from God. See, in his possession, Eli has the last copy of The Bible.

We're told enough about the war to learn that religion may have been the cause of it. All copies of the Bible were burned and destroyed shortly after nuclear weapons "punched a hole in the sky" and let solar radiation eradicate everyone on Earth who hadn't taken shelter. The result is that the Earth is a bleached-out, ash-strewn landscape. On the plus side, everyone gets to wear really cool sunglasses.

Eli found the Bible shortly after the war, urged on by a voice in his head telling him to head west. The voice may also be offering protection. The roads, after all, are plagued by cannibalistic scavengers and robbers, and everyone's bullets seem to pass right by Eli. Also, in a world where everyone is dehydrated and so in need of food that they're willing to cook cats, Eli has remained quite physically fit. He's able to take down entire gangs with just some flashy kung fu and a machete.

It's actually quite a bit of fun to see Denzel Washington in this role. The actor's gravitas lends a bit of solemnity to Eli's holy mission, but it's even more fun to watch Washington cut loose as a bona fide action hero. Denzel has always possessed a quality that makes him a commanding and authoritative presence in his films and giving him some weapons gives him a sense of quiet menace. I'm surprised no one's tried to tap into that before--he seems a more natural action hero than, say, Nicolas Cage.

Anyway, Eli is making his way West so he can find a suitable home for the Bible. On his travels, he happens into a small town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie seems to be part mayor-part godfather of the small town, relishing his opportunity to twist, bend and intimidate people to his will. The fact that Oldman, with his greasy hair, gold chains and Southern accent, seems to have patterned Carnegie on a sleazy televangelist should inform you that he does not have good purposes in mind for Eli's Bible, which he has been searching for for years. Caught up in the middle is Carnegie's daughter Solara--whom he hires out as a prostitute. He ain't father of the year--but then again, he named his daughter Solara--and she was born just years after the sun fried half of humanity.

So yes, it's easy to see how the film could have been unwieldy and, in lesser hands, a bit of a mess. Had someone tried to make the film a somber, serious affair it likely would have crashed and burned. But the Hughes', who work far too sporadically, give the film a sense of humor and energy and style. Yes, the film takes place in a bleached, ash-strewn environment where all of our creature comforts are gone; but they give the henchmen just enough absurdity and allow Oldman to chew the scenery enough for us to know that we're allowed to have a little fun. They show a skill at filming action sequences that seems to have been forgotten in this day of Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass quick cuts and flash edits; it's refreshing to see a sustained shot in which we can actually see a character performing martial arts instead of a quick blur of legs and fists.
But the film is elevated by actually having an interesting idea at its core. Simply protecting the last Bible on Earth would not have made for an engaging story--after all, the Bible is no good at all if it sits simply on the shelf. But the Hughes' explore the notion that the words of the Bible can also be distorted and misconstrued to twist and manipulate people; many false prophets have done just that. Carnegie is indicative of those who use religion for power--and living in this country, we've seen quite a bit of that.
But I've seen many reviews that gloss over Eli's arc as a man who sets off first simply to protect the Bible but then becomes aware of how little of its words he's actually put into practice. I read one review that summed the film up this way "Denzel Washington forsakes the gospel to protect the Bible," but I have to disagree with that. Eli is a flawed hero; in the beginning he has a narrow minded purpose of preserving the Bible and we see him ignore cries for help in the street. Through his encounter with Solara, he learns how to put the words of Christ into action and realizes his own failures; the movie never comes out and shows Eli depending on grace and forgiveness, but it does treat the Bible with a reverence that we rarely see in films these days.

Of course, it all comes down to an ending that I'm sure will split audiences; those happen to be the endings I like the most. And the Hughes' big twist may be hard to believe...but if you believe in miracles and the seriousness behind Eli's mission, it's really not that unbelievable at all. Some will say it's fundamentalist propaganda...I say that if we could handle James Cameron's "Earth first" diatribe in "Avatar," surely we can handle treating God seriously.

The film's not perfect. There's an encounter with an elderly couple that starts off as a shaky attempt at humor...although to be fair, it takes a deliciously dark and creepy turn. There's a subplot involving a local engineer that is never really followed up on. And Mila Kunis, who is turning into a strong comedienne in other films, is fairly inert here, although to be fair she's acting alongside Denzel Washington and Gary're bound to be overshadowed.

But "Book of Eli" is not meant as art. It's meant as entertainment and it succeeds very admirably. The action is fun, Washington and Oldman are as reliably good as ever and there's something to be said for a film that actually has an idea at its core--especially a theological one, which too many films shy from. Is it subtle? Heck no...but, again, it's an action movie...when are they ever subtle? I'd rather see 100 "Book of Eli's" than one "Fireproof."

I suspect this movie is a perfect antidote for those who may find "The Road" too bleak. "The Road" is the better movie and deals a bit more artfully with maintaining faith, humanity and morality in a world gone to hell. But then again, "The Road" was meant as art..."Eli" is an action film. And it does just what it sets out to do: it entertains, excites and blows stuff up real good. The fact that you may leave discussing its theological themes is a very pleasant surprise.

Who says January has to be empty month at the movies?

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.