The Book of Eli

After some days on the road, Eli /Denzel Washington and Solara /Mila Kunis drop in (and I mean that literally) at the front door of an elderly couple called George and Martha.

Whoa“,  I said to myself, “Now that’s interesting!”  You see, the most famous of all the George and Marthas we’ve seen in films are the ones we recall from Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf, the 1966 film of Edward Albee‘s play of the same name. Back then we watched Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads in a film that garnered 5 Oscars.

This time around, the onscreen George and Martha shown won’t be picking up any awards for their performances, and we’ll have to settle for film vets Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour instead of Liz and Dickie. We thank the directing twins, the Hughes Bros (Albert and Allen) for yet another of the many cinematic references in their brand new film called The Book Of Eli.

Eli opened in theaters just a few days ago on Friday the 15th, and I caught a 1:00 PM showing today the 18th.  Eli begins with a camera creeping along the ground in a place that might have been a forest at one time. There’s  a relatively fresh corpse on the ground that has attracted a hairless cat. Sorry, but that cat’s search for dinner will lead only to it becoming dinner for someone else, via a bow and arrow which is tracked in flight like the arrows of Costner’s Robin Hood. That someone would be Washington’s Eli.

We won’t know that his name is Eli until further along in the film. But even if we don’t know his name, we know his job. He is a Walker. I mention this because he has walked across the broad, but no longer beautiful country for 30 years. Ever since the Big Bang Theory became the Big Bang Reality, and the Earth as we knew it then (now) became a most inhospitable place. And we’ll call him Walker as opposed to Rider because there’s not a horse to be found in the film. But despite this, Eli is as invincible as any of Eastwood’s Pale Riders or his nameless gunmen from the days of the spaghetti westerns.

Eli is traversing America heading West. We don’t know why, and we won’t know why until about 90% of the film has passed by. Along the way he must fight off marauding hordes of highwaymen who’d kill you for a bottle of water, or a zippo lighter, or a bar of soap, if one existed. And Eli is excellent with a handgun or a blade the size of which we’ve not seen in action since Stallone’s Rambo flashed his in First Blood in 1982.

So The Hughes Twins have fashioned another post-apocalyptic film. Substitute Denzel Washington for Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and you’ll instantly know what the surrounding landscape is like, just as you’ll know what the nameless hordes of villains are like.

Ultimately Eli enters a town, which seemed to grind to a halt as soon as entered it. We won’t meet Tina Turner as the town boss. Instead it is Gary Oldman as Carnegie. He’s not a tin pot of a despot as he has lots of cars, weapons, and personnel to toss at Eli.

On the other hand, Eli disposes of them as easily as tossing tree pieces into a wood chipper. While the carnage doesn’t occur in a coliseum like place (Gladiator or Mad Max: Thunderdome and Beyond) the results are the same. Many men enter, one man leaves.

The Hughes have a number of what we call action set pieces in this film, but they’ve contained the gore and mayhem in a more civilized and stylized way. I do realize that what I just wrote is something of an oxymoron as people trying to eviscerate one another is anything but civilized. But then again, given the history of bloodshed anywhere on the planet for the last 1000 years, maybe this is exactly what civilizations do.

About now I should bring in the book. It seems that Eli has it, and Carnegie wants it. Carnegie will kill to get it and the Eli will kill to defend it. And there’s your main plotline.

As we find out toward the end of the film, this book is not what we thought it was – it is both more and less. But that’s all the clues I’ll give you.

The script pays homage to a lot of films, and besides the vets who played George and Martha we will also see Malcolm McDowell and Tom Waits. Washington’s Eli’s is suitably noble and heroic, and Oldman’s Carnegie is suitably evil, but decidedly not over the top. Jennifer Beals plays Carnegie’s blind wife, but the role is mostly a one-note affair, sympathetic and nothing else.  Mila Kunis looks too good for the setting, and her role could have been handled by any 20 something actress.

The Hughes have shot this movie darkly and while Washington and others sport sunglasses – our view is that sky is generally overcast and the film’s base color theme is rusty, dusty, with a pinch of ash.

There’s a lot in the film which they hold back and not reveal too early. Adding the action to the mysteries the film dishes out to us, you do get a movie that holds your interest. But it doesn’t quite reach the level of a thriller. You’ll leave the theater with more questions unanswered than answered.  However you might even come away thinking that while you are pleased in some sense with the film, the Hughes twins promised a bit more than they actually delivered.