Warning: It’s impossible to fully evaluate The Book of Eli in a review without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers, even though the film and the trailers make no effort to hide this ‘spoiler’. A spoiler warning is therefore in effect, but only for the paranoid spoiler Nazis.
In essence, The Book of Eli marries the violent, gritty feel of a spaghetti western with elements of The Road, and places this concoction in the indeterminate future with a spiritual twist. The Book of Eli additionally marks the return to the directorial chair for the Hughes Brothers (Allen and Albert), who were last seen at the helm of the underrated Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell almost a decade ago. Right from the opening titles, it’s clear the Hughes Brothers have matured during their absence from the director’s chair –The Book of Eli is a more meditative and competent effort from the duo. That said, this movie is far from perfect, as it suffers from a self-righteous tone, overbearing religious connotations, and some risible screenwriting.
The story takes place roughly thirty years after a devastating nuclear war which destroyed most of civilisation and transformed a majority of the survivors into filthy, illiterate scavengers reduced to murder and cannibalism. The titular Eli (Washington) is a modern-day prophet who wanders the remnants of the interstate highway systems heading West, with the last known copy of the Holy Bible in his backpack. God informed Eli to proceed to a place where the Good Book can take root in the new world, and those who get in his way must be violently dealt with. Thus, when Eli is interrupted by roving biker gangs or hijackers interested in the contents of Eli’s pack, he unleashes superhero-like skills. Trouble arises when Eli comes across a decrepit town ruled by the tyrannical Carnegie (Oldman), who is able to maintain his dictatorial reign because he knows of a location for clean water, and commands a horde of armed punks.
To make a long story short, Carnegie wants to get his hands on Eli’s Bible, because he plans to use it as a weapon to enhance and consolidate his power. With Eli harbouring honourable intentions for the Good Book, The Book of Eli can be considered an interesting metaphor for the dual-edged nature of religion: when used with good intentions, it can lead to salvation for humanity, but when abused the results are apocalyptic.
For those not paying much attention, the big spoiler warning at the beginning was because of this review revealing the fact that Eli is carrying a Holy Bible. That’s right – the twist is that Eli is carrying the Bible and it will bring hope to humanity. It’s not used in any symbolic way, like if it was hollowed out and contains some ultimate weapon or a helpful map… It’s literally just the Bible. How hopelessly trite and obvious can you get?! This, along with the usually clunky pacing, the introduction of the useless Salara (Kunis), and the aforementioned self-righteous tone prove most detrimental to The Book of Eli. It runs for two hours, but most of this running time is filler rather than character development. Since you know Eli is carrying the Bible and is consequently on a mission from God (if you will), the story’s victor is predictable from the outset, and the script should therefore have been tighter rather than meandering.
Yet, in spite of its faults, there is much to appreciate about The Book of Eli. The Hughes Brothers and veteran cinematographer Don Burgess have crafted a painterly motion picture crafted with style and nuance. If the Mad Max films were executed with a much more generous budget, the apocalyptic wastelands would resemble those within The Book of Eli. Additionally, stylish shots and camera set-ups are frequent, such as the way the camera at times moves as if it’s a bird trying to avoid all the airborne bullets. The direction of the action scenes is crisp and kinetic, and the directorial duo never relied on fast cuts or editing-room assembly to make the fights seem fast or furious (the best fight occurs early into the film, and is presented almost entirely in silhouette). The film culminates with a riveting shootout which would make Sam Peckinpah smile. An extra ribbon for the excellent sound design and the moody score by first-timer Atticus Ross, too.
The eternally-reliable Denzel Washington is credible and engaging as Eli, and it’s refreshing to see a kickass action hero like him – he’s not a wise-cracker, an impossibly muscular force of nature, some type of misfit, or any other stale, popular Hollywood troupe.
Gary Oldman, meanwhile, is in full bad-guy mode here, with his performance reminding us of the villains he used to portray in such movies as Leon: The Professional. If you’ve seen any post-apocalyptic action movie before, however, you’ve seen this type of one-note villain before, making Oldman’s work solid but unremarkable. The attractive Mila Kunis is also on hand as Solara, yet she looks too comely and clean to be living in such a harsh world (usually the case with movies of this ilk featuring a female protagonist). The role does prove to be within Kunis’ range, though, which is unsurprising considering how little she was given to work with. Ray Stevenson, meanwhile, (who you may or may not remember from the awesome Punisher: War Zone which nobody saw) is solid in his performance as Carnegie’s right-hand man.
The Book of Eli is not a great movie or even a classic of the genre, but there’s a great deal to admire, particularly in the visual style and the action sequences. Additionally, it’s a treat to see a big-budget actioner which doesn’t sacrifice intelligence for the sake of special effects. The Book of Eli contains one of the best truck explosions in cinema of recent years, yet a viewer is not asked to lower their I.Q. to enjoy the pyrotechnics. While a flawed cinematic experience, it’s still worth checking out.