Book of Eli, The: Allen and Albert Hughes’ Post-Apocalyptic Thriller-Actioner-Western, Starring Denzel Washington

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The only consistent element in “The Book of Eli,” Allen and Albert Hughes’ new post-apocalyptic sci-fi-thriller-actioner-western, is Denzel Washington’s titular hero, a stubborn man whose calling in life is to get the Bible out West, and deposit it in a safe place for posterity, or rather, as the seed of a new, more humanistic, egalitarian and learned society.

But the role is contained in a hodge-podge of a movie, an absurd (and absurdist), incoherent narrative, which is defined by many contradictions: It’s religious and pompous, arty and exploitational, pretentious and gritty, futuristic and old-fashioned, fast-moving in the action sequences and deliberately-paced in the dialogue-driven interactions.
It’s therefore with great chagrin that I have to report that “Book of Eli,” the first film from the gifted Hughes brothers in nine years, is a major disappointment, a mishmash of ideas courtesy of neophyte scribe Gary Whitta.  Whitta must have seen many movies, for the screenplay is a pastiche of old mythical Westerns and apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic sci-fis, from Mel Gibson’s trilogy “Mad Max” all the way to this season’s “2012” and “The Road,” starring Viggo Mortensen, with which it shares a number of similarities, though “The Road” is a much better picture.
It will be interesting to see how the movie performs in the marketplace when Warner releases it January 17, whether the religious right and moral majority would support the picture, despite its essentially grim tone and excessive violence.  Loyal fans of Washington will have to embrace this solemn, message-oriented actioner, which has many dull moments, in which Eli actually reads chapters from thwe Bible, to put it over.
It’s hard to think of many other American directors, who have had such a brilliant beginning as the Hughes brothers, who made one of the most stunning debuts in American film history in 1993, while in their early 20s, with “Menace II Society,” a compelling inner-city crime meldrama, followed by “Dead Presidents,” also a good picture.  But, alas, their last work, “From Hell,” starring Johnny Depp,” was both an artistic and commercial flop. 
In his mid-50s, Denzel Washington looks good and alert as an action hero. This movie is very much in line with the characters he has played in the pictures of Tony Scott–his most frequent and perhaps favorite director–though the directorial approach and visual strategy are vastly different.
As penned (or rather constructed) by Gary Whitta, the movie is set in the not-too-distant future, some 30 years after the final war, though it’s not specified what kind of war. When Eli says (almost in passing) that he’s been walking for 30 years, you wonder how he has survived; he certainly doesn’t look or sound like a man who’s been on the road for half of his life.

Eli must keep moving to fulfill his destiny, and bring help to a humanity that’s been tarnished and ravished. To that extent, the recurrent visual motif is that of a solitary man, a tall, handsome, cool guy who seldom removes his dark glasses, walking across the wasteland that was once called America. Early on, the movie establishes through overly familiar CGI efffects its context of empty, desolate cities, broken highways, seared earth, corpses lying around, all marks of a major catastrophic destruction that has all but wiped civilization as we know it. With no laws or norms, chaos reigns: The roads belong to brutal gangs that torture and rape women, murder men for their shoes or water—and sometimes kill for no apparent reason, just for the fun of it.

Borrowing themes, characters, myths, and icons from classic Hollywood Westerns, as well as from Truffaut’s “Fahrenheit 451” (a sci-fi film based on Ray Bradbury’s novel about a world without books), “Book of Eli” centers on a protagonist who’s both a man of ideas and a man of action. Eli is faster with his gun, knife and arrow than any thug out there. But he’s also a quiet, meditative man who tries not to get involved in violence—unless necessary. He keeps telling himself, “It’s not your concern,” but, of course, it is, and when he gets involved, the action is swift and deadly.

Washington plays Eli as a solemn, humorless warrior, motivated not by choice but by necessity and pre-determination. He seeks peace, but, if challenged, will cut his attackers down before they realize their fatal mistake. It’s not his life that he guards so fiercely but his hope for the future, which he has carried for years and is determined to realize at all costs.  Driven by commitment and guided by his belief in something greater than himself, Eli does what he must to survive.  No man—or woman–can deter Eli from his mission, and nothing can stand in his way.

Only one other individual understands the power Eli holds, and is determined to make it his own, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the self-appointed despot of a makeshift town of thieves and gunmen. Though he is illiterate, his  single motivation is to get hold of the Bible, for power and control purposes.  Surrounded by a private army, Carnegie lives like a corrupt monarch in an isolated castle. His household includes his blind common-law wife, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), and her daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), both of whom he had rescued from the badlands and continues to protect–in his own violent, abusive way.  One scene, Carnegie washes Claudia’s long hair with a rare shampoo in a romantic sort of way, the next, he pulls her hair and tortures her. 

Carnegie keeps the women safe but they are virtually slaves (sexually too). While Claudia is a doomed creature, Solara is a young, smart, strong woman, who believes that there is more to life. However, it’s only after meeting Eli that she is inspired to escape and change her life. Though drawn to him sexually, Solara’s fascination with Eli is psychological. She follows him, demanding to learn from him; reluctantly he agrees.

A man on a mission of undeniable importance, which he’s been pursuing for decades, Eli is nearing the end, but like Job, he knows that more challenging tests, both physical and mental, are ahead of him. In other words, though utterly committed to the goal, he continues to be tested.

In playing the mythical, enigmatic lone warrior, Washington channels Clint Eastwood’s “Man With No Name,” in the Sergio Leone Westerns, as well as the cool attitude and killer’s skills that actors like Steve McQueen had back in the 1960s.  The great assets that Washington always possessed as an actor, and explains why he has become a star, are charisma, photogeneity, and a naturally appealing persona, even when he plays villains (“Training Day,” his Oscar-winning film). Credited as producer (alongside Joel Silver), Washington must have believed in the material he’s playing, though I have no idea what his religious orientation is.

The directors and their glowing camera give their star, who’s the best thing in the film, a lavish treatment with images that sometime look as if they are torn from glossy fashion photography. Washington is shot from every possible angle (high and low), often positioned (and posing) against the vast land, or blue skies dominated by white clouds.  The camera tracks him slavishly from behind. as he walks and walks until he reaches his destination, the ocean.