Sunday, January 17, 2010


Denzel Washington appears to be poaching on Will Smith territory in this post-apocalyptic yawner about a peripatetic loner hoofing his way westward through a vast wasteland on a special mission. This is the kind of high-octane, futuristic thriller that Will Smith makes. Indeed, we haven’t seen Denzel as trigger-happy as this since “Training Day.” Sure, Denzel is the hero, but he also kills with extreme prejudice. “Menace II Society” co-directors Albert & Allen Hughes make their monosyllabic hero humble enough to elicit our sympathy but skilled enough in close-quarters combat, like Steven Seagal caught between a rock and a hard place, to vanquish the villains without flinching. The problem with “The Book of Eli” (** our of ****)is it takes itself far too seriously so it is no fun. Humor is strictly peripheral. The Brothers Hughes and freshman scenarist Gary Whitta have not made a post-apocalyptic thriller in the tradition of the “Mad Max” movies. Mind you, “Eli” and “Max” were similar in that each occurred in arid terrain and both heroes survived outside of society. The villain that Denzel squares off against simply lacks audacity. Instead, the filmmakers appear to be channeling Randolph Scott and the westerns that he starred in for director Budd Boetticher in the 1950s. Usually, these oaters found Scott taking time off from the trail to tangle with his adversaries. As for our hero, Denzel tangles with the boys, but he wants nothing to do with girls. He struggles to mind his own business. Good post-apocalyptic thrillers are typically outlandish, over-the-top actioneers. The violence is brief and bloody, but Denzel doesn’t dispatch his opponents with a clever line. Despite its R rating, “The Book of Eli” eschews both nudity and sexuality.

The world lies in ruins after a nuclear war has devastated the planet. Two kinds of people exist in the aftermath: those who can read and those who cannot read. Eli--as we learn when we see his name tag in his bag--seems virtually indestructible. Hideously evil bad guys surround him, but he puts them down with the Seagal-like efficiency. He doesn't spare the knife nor spoil his vicious adversaries. Basically, Eli prefers to mind his own business, leave others alone, and keep himself
supplied with water. When scavengers and murderers try to interfere with him, he slices them to ribbons with a large machete and/or drops them with an automatic pistol or a pump-action shotgun. He is really good in a crisis until he meets the treacherous likes of Carnegie (Gary Oldman of "True Romance") who is desperately searching for the Bible. He wants the book for the power that comes with it that he plans to exploit for his own selfish gain. He has been sending amoral ruffians
out to scour the earth for a Bible. Ironically, the very book--the Bible--that Eli has been led to preserve for posterity was burned. He tells us in one scene that many people blamed the Bible for the destruction of society. Nothing remains of a once affluent society that had too much for its own good and obliterated it because it could not come to terms with religion. The survivors of the war destroyed all Bibles because they felt that religion triggered the catastrophe. When Carnegie discovers Eli has the Bible, he resolves to take it away from him. Earlier, Carnegie watched Eli defend himself in a bar against a number of thugs. Carnegie invites Eli to join him, but our hero tells him that he has other plans. Carnegie has a blind woman, Claudia (Jennifer Beals of "Devil in a Blue Dress"), and her daughter, Solara
(Mila Kunis of "Max Payne"), works for Carnegie. Carnegie tries to use Solara to entice Eli to stick around. Eli wants nothing to do with Solara. He escapes from Carnegie and his henchmen after a bullet-riddled street shoot-out. Predictably, Carnegie rounds up his hooligans and they pursue Solara and our hero.

Unfortunately, despite seasoned performances, "The Book of Eli" wears out its welcome long before its 118-minutes elapses. Although its action scenes are riveting, this lackluster saga seems long, drawn-out, and broods more often than bristles with excitement. The Hughes Brothers and Whitta never dwell on humor. What little humor there is remains ephemeral. For example, Eli washes himself with moisture packets from KFC. The irony is unmistakable here as the Colonel represents a racist era and Eli is an African-American using the KFC packets to keep clean. They play everything straight down the line, but they also pull a couple of things that remain unconvincing. Denzel lets the gray show in his hair and he does not make any moves on the comely Kunis. Denzel delivers a solemn, low-key performance as the
protagonist, and he acquits himself splendidly in the action scenes. Sadly, Gary Oldman is saddled with one of his least villainous roles. Jennifer Beals doesn't have enough screen time to make an impression. Meanwhile, the Hughes Brothers come up short here with this dreary,threadbare road trip about a Christian drifter, but neither they nor their hero proselytize to anybody. "Forrest Gump" cinematographer Don Burgess provides "The Book of Eli" with a desolate burned-out look with his subdued lensing that emphasizes the sheer nothingness that engulfs everybody. The ending bundles up three surprises. Two defy credibility while the third is tragic. After all is said and done, "The Book of Eli" is dreary melodrama.