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"THE BOOK OF ELI"
(2010) (Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Drama: In a post-apocalyptic world, a lone traveler continues on his quest west, but most contend with an educated villain and his array of thugs who want the potentially influential book in his possession.
PLOT:
It's been decades since the end of the world as we know it, and Eli (DENZEL WASHINGTON) is a solemn and lone traveler who's spent the past thirty years heading across the remains of America. He's a rarity in being an older, middle-aged man in a time when few of them exist anymore, but he's quite capable of defending himself from the thieves and even cannibals that roam the mostly barren and desolate lands. His source of inspiration is an old book that he carries with him and for which he's on a quest to take it west, although he's uncertain of his exact destination or final reason for his higher-calling journey.

Things become more perilous when he enters a small town, hoping that a local shopkeeper (TOM WAITS) can recharge his old digital music player. While waiting for that and needing water, he enters the tavern across the street where a thug, Martz (EVAN JONES), discovers the hard way that it's best not to mess with him. After dealing with him and an assortment of others, Eli ends up captured by Redridge (RAY STEVENSON) who works for the town's dictator, Carnegie (GARY OLDMAN).

An educated man who remembers the old days before the war and resultant "flash" that opened in the sky and incinerated or blinded most everyone, Carnegie's sole obsession is in finding a certain book that he believes will give him the power to influence and thus rule those in other towns as well. Having seen Eli's prowess and thinking that will come in handy, he hopes to convince him to stay by having Solara (MILA KUNIS) -- the pretty daughter of his blind mistress, Claudia (JENNIFER BEALS) -- spend the night with him.

Eli doesn't fall for that, but does get her to pray with him before eating, and unintentionally allows her to see his valued book, although she can't read, much like everyone else. Her forced description of that, however, alerts Carnegie that Eli possesses the book he so covets, the Bible, but the traveler won't part with it. After he wipes out many of the dictator's thugs who've been ordered to take it from him, Eli continues on his way, not happy that Solara has joined him.

As they continue west, they must not only contend with various locals they encounter -- such as the older Martha (FRANCES DE LA TOUR) and George (MICHAEL GAMBON) -- but also Carnegie and his thugs, including Redridge, Hoyt (JOE PINGUE) and others, who are in hot pursuit of them.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
If there's any film genre that's quintessentially American, it's the Western, and that's mostly likely due to America -- at least the non Native American version -- being formed by settlers heading further and further west. While many still associate the likes of Gene Autry, Gary Cooper and especially John Wayne in such films, for others the epitome of such hardy and rugged characters are those formerly played by Clint Eastwood.

While his name will most likely bring up memories of his last entry in the field -- 1992's Oscar-winning "Unforgiven" -- mine go back to the Spaghetti Westerns from years earlier (and ironically made overseas) where the actor collaborated with filmmaker Sergio Leone in "A Fistful of Dollars" (1964), "For a Few Dollars More" (1965), and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" (1966). Nicknamed the "Man With No Name" trilogy, they were the epitome of the classic western where a lone traveler of few words rode into some remote outpost and then afoul of the local thugs.

Continuing in that tradition, but with a different genre label attached and some interesting thematic elements thrown in for good measure, is "The Book of Eli," a decidedly R-rated action-infused offering that, if marketed correctly, could very well become a sizable hit among religious viewers. Why, you might ask, is that group being singled out for this violent flick?

The simple answer is that the titular publication just so happens to be the Bible. And not just any Bible, but quite likely the very last one on Earth. You see, the world essentially ended decades ago from some barely identified war, and our hero (Denzel Washington combining his usual aura of dignity and seriousness with some surprisingly credible self-defense abilities) received a calling to head west with said book. Like others following the apparent word of God, he's a man on a mission and all others who get in his way be damned.

He knows the power of the words inside the book and believes that he will be protected -- from a higher power -- as he makes his journey that's now rolling past its thirtieth year. The only problem is that another man (Gary Oldman in usual, if effective villainous mode) also knows the power of the Bible. Yet, rather than use it for good, he wants it in order to expanded his influence of control from those in his dilapidated town to many others. The fact that we first see him reading a book about Mussolini is really all we need to know about his motives.

From their initial meeting, the plot -- penned by Gary Whitta -- then unfolds in the usual manner where the villain wants what the hero has, while the hero doesn't want trouble but will defend himself, and even take lives, if he and his mission are threatened. The Hughes Brothers -- Albert and Allen, whose last film, "From Hell," came out a long nine years ago -- essentially have fashioned a pro-Christian, post-apocalyptic western, and have done so with their trademark sense of high style.

Granted, after the recent "The Road" and going back through the "Mad Max" movies, films featuring Earth after "the end of the world as we know it" aren't particularly novel anymore. We get the usual array of messy lines of long-abandoned cars, skeletons, seemingly deserted but potentially dangerous homes and farmhouses, and generally bleak and desaturated environs. Yet, the filmmakers, cinematographer Don Burgess and production designer Gae Buckley still manage to make it disturbingly engaging, with enough flourishes to make it feel somewhat novel without too many of the camera angles, slow motion shots and such coming off as too showy.

The action scenes are handled decently, and Washington makes for a nimble and resourceful action hero (especially at the age of 55 when most actors have long abandoned hopes of attempting just that for fear of looking silly), even if some of that can be attributed to good editing. Whether one accepts the protection of God element or not, the only problem is that his character's ability to survive various attacks (including a Gatling gun that makes Swiss cheese of a farmhouse owned by two of the more unusual cannibals in filmdom) increasingly strains credibility. It was never bad enough to take yours truly out of the action (due to most of that otherwise being handled so well), but it might bother some viewers.

Then there's the fact that the villain's stepdaughter of sorts (Mila Kunis) looks a little too pretty and fashionably put together for living in such environs. Yes, she would have the best offered to her being the daughter of said villain's mistress/wife (Jennifer Beals), but she stands out a bit too much in such regards until she eventually gets down, dirty and bloodied during the action. The rest of the cast -- Tom Waits playing a shopkeeper, Ray Stevenson as the main henchman, and a host of others playing a combination of "Road Warrior" meets Western -- are generally fine.

Some may protest, however, that there's little character depth, exploration or change at play, especially with some fairly heady themes. That didn't really bother me as it follows the standard thrust of most westerns that usually don't delve too deeply into such matters. That said, the film could have benefitted some from a greater exploration of religion and how it can influence leaders and their followers for both good and bad. That's touched upon here and there (talk that the war stemmed from religion and that nearly all remaining Bibles were purposefully destroyed after that, as well as the motives of the hero and antagonist), and there are the to-be-expected metaphors related to the Bible.

Even so, the Hughes Brothers are more interested in offering a stylish, kick-butt post-apocalyptic action flick that pays homage to those old Spaghetti Westerns first and foremost, and they succeed at that. The thematic elements are a bit of added gravy on top, although that could have been more generously applied. The fairly engaging and decidedly pro-religion "The Book of Eli" rates as a 6 out of 10.




Reviewed January 11, 2010 / Posted January 15, 2010


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