With unshakable equanimity and an ever-present air of wisdom, Denzel Washington is the thinking man’s tough guy. From drug lord turf wars to legal conspiracies, his characters are often unlikely heroes, willing to fight for survival.
In The Book of Eli, Washington treads on familiar ground as the eponymous, pensive survivor of apocalyptic warfare, walking across a ravaged America with a special book and a big mission in mind. The new film from the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society) follows Eli on his dangerous trek, on which we gather that most humans are dead, and a lot of the ones left are either scrappy scavengers or heartless bandits, willing to kill on sight for supplies or a little water. (It’s really sunny after the apocalypse, but in a creepy, chemical kind of way.) Despite this grim reality, The Hughes’ tea-stained palette and metallic veneer is a nice touch, invoking the silver gelatin prints of photography’s earlier days.
Apart from constant thirst, chapped lips and fear of death, the other key tidbit about post-apocalyptic society is that no one can read. No one, that is, except the old people who survived, like the wandering Eli. Rest assured, he’s no wimpy bookworm! Soon after the film begins, our hero runs into trouble and manages to slash his assailants with bad-ass knife skills in a silhouetted, blood-splashing scene that would do Tarantino proud — at least, it would if the film stopped there.
Unfortunately, this stretch of Eli’s odyssey has just begun. Soon, he arrives in a small town, run by a nasty guy called Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Guess what? Carnegie can read, too. When we meet him in fact, he’s studying up with a book on Mussolini, in case his fascistic leanings weren’t obvious enough. Despite the piles of books that his thugs brings back from the road there’s only one he wants, and it seems more elusive than he can stomach.
Until, of course, Eli arrives in town and their literary interests intersect. They’re united by mutual desire for the book in question, but deeply divided by their intentions. Our hero, it turns out, has been trudging across sun-scorched land for 30 years with the only copy of the Bible left on Earth. Carnegie, meanwhile, has been pining for the ancient scriptures so he can go global with his dictatorship. When the resident hot girl (that would be Solara, played by Mila Kunis) spills the beans about Eli’s book, they’re all off and running on a chase for it.
There are moments in The Book of Eli when it’s tempting to think it’s designed as an action-packed examination of religion and its fungibility: as an instrument of salvation and civilization, and a tool of indoctrination and suppression. Those moments, however, are brief and mostly fleeting. Add a scene where women are brutalized and a long, laughable gun fight, and any redemptive scraps of philosophy are out the window. Now and then, the film seems to poke fun at itself with little wink-wink moments (granny likes disco!). The self-awareness, though, doesn’t go far enough.