In battle between good and evil, we win. Barely.
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Jan. 15, 2010
Most people have some good in them, and some bad. This is one of the messages of "The Book of Eli," a hyper-violent, post-apocalyptic Western in the mold of "Mad Max" that can't make up its mind whether it wants to be corny or misanthropic.
Most movies are also a mix of good and bad. Here follows an accounting of what's right -- and what's wrong -- with the film. Call it: The Bookkeeping of "Eli."
Let's start by putting Denzel Washington in the assets column. The actor beautifully inhabits the film's titular hero, a laconic, solitary gunslinger who's also custodian of a mysterious tome, carried in his backpack as he travels a burned-out landscape populated by cannibalistic "hijackers" who will happily kill you for your water, shoes or ChapStick -- or, in Eli's case, his roadside reading material. Washington's character -- who packs heat, but thanks to an oft-mentioned shortage of bullets in the world, also wields a mean crossbow and scimitar -- is an heir to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. (We only learn that he's called Eli incidentally, and late in the game.) He gives the film half its cool.
In the supporting cast, Gary Oldman makes a great villain, tearing into the part of Carnegie, the corrupt, small-town boss who also wants Eli's book for his personal library, with obvious, scene-stealing relish. Mila Kunis, on the other hand, is disappointingly lightweight as Solara, the forgettable damsel-in-distress who falls in with Eli, and mostly slows him, and the movie, down. Let's call that one a wash.
Another plus is the film's gorgeous look. Directed by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes ("From Hell"), "Eli" has a bleached-out, sepia palette that's drained of almost every color but the occasional blood-red splatter, underscoring the corpse-like pallor and violence of the world it depicts.
In the debits column: That darn book, for starters.
What's in it? I can't say outright, but the script by Gary Whitta drops heavy-handed hints in the buildup to the big reveal, starting with Carnegie's reason for coveting it. It's not so much a book, he explains, but a "weapon," whose words will give him power over the hearts and minds of his subjects. Some even say its teachings may have contributed to the conflict leading up to the giant "flash" 31 years ago that almost destroyed the planet. Why is Eli so hellbent on protecting this controversial volume? A disembodied voice told him to. (What, no burning bush?)
If you don't start to get some idea of what Eli's carrying -- and why it's so precious -- well before the movie makes it explicit, you're just not paying attention. When the film finally gives it away, though, it's almost a letdown. Not to mention something of a moral conundrum. Is any book -- even one that many believe holds the power to save the world -- worth sacrificing your own soul? Given the trail of dead bodies that Eli leaves in his wake, you might wonder whether he's all that different from Carnegie.
The film culminates in a battle worthy of Sam Peckinpah. Holed up in a farmhouse on the side of good are Eli, Solara and a hapless old couple named -- here comes the corny part -- George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour). On the misanthropic side: Carnegie and a small army of mercenaries equipped with enough machine guns and rocket launchers to turn the farmhouse to toothpicks. So much for the shortage of bullets.
That showdown between the righteous and the very, very wrong-teous is not, however, the end of the movie. There's actually a twist coming, worthy of O. Henry. It's more than a little satisfying and just about makes up for all the handsome, portentous nonsense that came before, putting "The Book of Eli" barely, if not squarely, in the black ink.
At area theaters. Contains brutal violence and frequent obscenity. 118 minutes.