Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Review: The Book of Eli (2010)

The Book of Eli
118 minutes
Rated R

by Scott Mendelson

The biggest surprise of The Book of Eli is that it is a real movie. We have become somewhat used to the idea of big-budget genre pictures often being exercises in style and/or non-stop action. But the Hughes Brothers' newest entry (their first in eight years) is in fact a real film, with ideas, character-development, and an emphasis on mood and tone over action spectacle. Those expecting a thrill-a-minute adventure picture will be sorely disappointed. While flawed and glacially-paced, the newest Denzel Washington film is a refreshing genre picture, a genuinely satisfying B-movie that actually has something on its mind.

A token amount of plot - about 30 years ago, world-war was waged and weapons basically blew a hole in the ozone layer, causing the majority of the population to burn to death in a matter of years. Those who survived have basically reverted to the base survival instinct, with day-to-day life representing unending struggle for food and shelter in this dusty hellhole. Into this world steps Eli (Denzel Washington), a walker who has roamed the Earth since the beginning of 'the end'. He carries with him the last known copy of the King James Bible, which he believes can help the right group of people find something deeper than mere salvation. But Eli's travels west soon bring trouble. For in the newest town on his journey lies Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who rules using fear, intimidation, and intellectual superiority. Carnegie has long sought the 'good book', believing that he could use its contents to control ever more legions of people and seek greater power.

The picture is above all a spiritual fable, about one man who would use the word of God for good and another who would use it for evil. The film's theology does not go too deep beyond the surface level, but the matter-of-fact nature of its spirituality is appreciated. The film is not an action picture, as the action is mainly confined to a few brief moments where Eli defends himself in lethal fashion against marauders and would-be assailants. Refreshingly, these moments are filmed in long and wide takes, with some of the sequences appearing to be only one or two long shots. The action choreography is more impressive than anything I've seen in American action films in awhile, mainly because we are actually allowed to see it. Instead of constant incident, the film feels like a tone poem, as it takes pains to establish the world that it inhabits. It is refreshing to see a genre picture where characters actually have extended conversations about things not directly related to the plot.

But, it must be said, the film is almost too slow for its own good. It is nearly an hour into the 118-minute picture before the few primary characters are fully introduced and allowed to interact with each other. And the film stumbles badly in not given a deeper relationship between Eli and Carnegie. Antagonists they may be, but surely Carnegie would relish the opportunity to converse with an intellectual equal while otherwise surrounded by intellectually-regressed henchmen. And while the film pains itself to give depth to its lead female characters, mother/daughter Claudia and Solora (Jeniffer Beals and Mila Kunis respectively), the narrative still uses them primarily as victims to be saved from their turmoil by the righteous Eli (more-so Kunis, who is literally rescued at least twice from certain death). Ray Stevenson has an oddly-touching final scene as Oldman's lead henchman, but he is otherwise wasted. Performances are fine across the board, but only Washington, Oldman, and Beals truly shine.

The Book of Eli is overall an emotionally-compelling science-fiction drama. It's not as overwhelmingly grim as The Road, but it does not pull punches when depicting its post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is a thoughtful look at what role religion and faith in a higher order would play in a world that has seemingly been abandoned by God. It re-establishes the Hughes Brothers as makers of high-quality genre pictures, if that is the path that they end up choosing. I sincerely wish that Oldman and Washington had a fuller relationship onscreen, but the film earns major kudos by ending not with blazing action but with character-driven incident and revelation. The Book of Eli is refreshingly ambitious in its storytelling and refreshingly uninterested in spectacle. It's just a solid piece of genre filmmaking.

Grade: B

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