The Book of Eli (2010)
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Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits
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The Book of Eli
Dir. Albert and Allen Hughes
Starring Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals
As other actors of his generation grow older, they rely on safer roles in sure-to-please action movies or comedies, while Denzel Washington, on the other hand, prefers to take on those that are riskier and more challenging. In the last decade (give or take a year or two), he has taken on two controversial real-life figures (The Hurricane and American Gangster) and a sinister corrupt cop, the latter leading to his Oscar win.
You can add Eli to that list, a lone figure that traverses lawless, post-apocalyptic America in order to deliver a sacred book to a destination on the west coast. He is something out of an Eastwood western, a man who speaks with his weapons not his words and quotes Biblical verse right before he beheads the cannibalistic bandits that haunt the empty roads. Little does he know that many of the cretins he encounters are searching for his book as toadies of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the appropriately named self-proclaimed ruler of a dusty town. When Eli wanders into Carnegie's territory and his burden is discovered, it begins a chase across the scorched landscape with a young follower (Mila Kunis) who longs to know Eli's secrets and escape her life under Carnegie's brutal thumb.
As a warning, don't go into this experience without your suspension of disbelief. The back story makes little sense and the filmmakers seem like they have no desire to provide any explanation; all we know is that there was there was a massive book burning, a war, and then the sky rained hell fire. When we find out that all the killing, maiming, car-chases, and explosions are over a King James Bible, the last King James Bible, we are left scratching our heads as to why it's so desirable. Eli has his own prophetical reasons, but Carnegie's are vague (they seem to have something to do with ultimate power and urban sprawl). There are also many plot holes (Eli may or may not be indestructible as one second he is impervious to bullets, the next he isn't), but the biggest whammy comes at the conclusion, a implausibility so blatant it boggles the mind on how the writers thought they could get away with it.
But at least it looks good, and many of the action sequences are done in a way that is more concerned with style than just parading out the guts. When Eli is first approached by a roving band of baddies, he backs into the darkness of an underpass and the ensuing fight becomes balletic silhouettes chopping and hacking at one another until only our hero is left standing. It's a refreshing change from the usual blood splatter, and interesting to watch.
The performances also make the whole exercise worthwhile, and, if anything finally shows that Gary Oldman could play elitist villain in his sleep (think of his homicidal, classical music loving cop in The Professional). Here he's introduced reading a biography about Mussolini and relaxing at his desk while his minions wallow in filth and depravity. Thinking back on his past roles, I often wonder if he's on retainer as the guy who will ultimately save bad movies from becoming unwatchable with his charisma and adept acting. But you would also have to consider Denzel who carries much of the movie capably without any dialogue or action sequences to assist him-you kind of like watching him just walking the abandoned highways in silence, clad in a very badass long coat and aviator sunglasses. And we get an extra little gift in Tom Waits, who plays someone that we don't care who it is because it's Tom Waits, damn it! One of the best scenes is a meeting between Waits and Washington, and you can't help but be giddy over seeing two more unlikely people together on screen.
The biggest issue I have is with Kunis, who seems awfully miscast. She's great in comic roles, but here she's too pretty and clean to be believable as a fall-out survivor living amongst a bunch of dirty rapists and human-eaters. The movie would have benefited from someone who looks like they have the tenacity and wit to make their way through total destruction (maybe Thora Birch, or Anna Paquin, who's had a pretty distinguished career doing stuff like this). The producers may have chosen Kunis for a little bit of eye-candy, but her pouty lipped, skinny jeans-wearing presence takes away from the impact we're supposed to feel from all the crazy grittiness that surrounds her.
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