A lone man (Denzel Washington, "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") heads West in a desolate landscape. Any people he sees along the way are either cannibals, rapists, murderers or their victims. When he reaches a settled town, he's treated with suspicion, but the town's leader, Carnegie (Gary Oldman, "The Dark Knight"), has been searching for a book and in wooing the man to join his team discover what he has in his possession - "The Book of Eli."
Nine years after their last film, Albert and Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society," "From Hell") jump on the post-apocalyptic bandwagon with a story from screenwriter Gary Whitta that plays like "The Road" with elements of "Mad Max," "Deadwood," "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and a twist ending that, to a far lesser extent than "The Sixth Sense," makes one want to see the film again to see if it still plays (my impression having only seen it once it seems pretty far-fetched). "The Book of Eli" is a decent enough entertainment, but its story and imagery are all too familiar, there are jarring geographical impossibilities, and costarring Mila Kunis (TV's "That 70's Show," "Extract") seems out of her depth against the likes of Washington and Oldman.
The Hughes' opening image is perhaps their best - in a forest raining with ash, a man in a gas mask takes sight with a bow and arrow on a hairless cat drawn out by human remains. But then we see this man travelling a road littered with abandoned cars, an image seen recently not only in "The Road," but in "Zombieland," "I Am Legend...." The man finds shelter, listens to 'How Can You Mend a Broken Heart' on an iPod running low on battery, and shares his cooked cat meat with an inquisitive mouse. It is the iPod that draws Eli into a town and into trouble with Carnegie, a man who sends raiding parties out to rape and murder and steal all in pursuit of a Bible. Carnegie knows that owning those words would give him ultimate control, even as it is implied that God's words were the heart of the dispute that got the earth into the state that it is in. On the road, we've seen Eli's prowess with a blade when he was drawn into a trap by a seemingly helpless woman, and Carnegie learns that Eli has dispatched several of his men in similar fashion. He's 'invited' to spend the night to consider staying, but Carnegie's woman Claudia (an ageless Jennifer Beals), blind since birth, reports back that he will not be convinced, so Carnegie tortures her by sending in her daughter, Solara (Kunis), as inducement. When Eli will not have her, Solara convinces him to play along, but the next day she slips in front of Carnegie with news of the book he read. Eli busts out and Solara follows, promising to show him Carnegie's sources of water if she can stay with him.
The film is just one big Good vs. Evil post-apocalyptic Western with Eli as the Man with Biblical Name. There is a show down on the farm of George (Michael Gambon, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") and Martha (Frances de la Tour, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"), an amusing not-quite-no-man's-land sequence that ends in continuity problems and the sanctity of Eli's mission questioned. As Eli's unintended protege, Solara runs into the same female trap Eli had, even though the woman was left with nothing but a broken shopping cart miles and miles on the eastern side of the town - major disconnect - as is costuming by Sharen Davis, who dresses Claudia in something seemingly assembled from pieces of other garments but puts Solara in skin-tight jeans and a leather jacket and presents Eli as if he just stepped out of a Land's End catalog. And while it is said cockroaches would survive nuclear war, so, apparently, have the malls of America as product placement for J. Crew and K-Mart is attention grabbing.
Washington is OK, filled with the certainty of his mission. Oldman is more fun, introduced reading a biography of Mussolini (very few can read thirty years after 'the event'), but he's not given enough to work with and his plan for world domination is overshadowed by the chase. Kunis is out of her league. There is some fun to be had with smaller roles, such as Gambon and de la Tour (who plays 'Ring My Bell' on her Victrola for company), Chris Browning ("Terminator Salvation") as the road killer astonished to be vanquished and Evan Jones ("The Express") as the leader of one of Carnegie's road gangs. Tom Waits ("The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus") cannot engender interest as the town's shopkeeper, but Malcolm McDowell ("Halloween II") gets a laugh for merely showing up in the film's last act.
Cinematography by Don Burgess ("Enchanted") is generally effective - sure there are cliches, especially in the processing, but he does compose some shots nicely - a six on one fight in silhouette like a cartoon strip, for example - but the overall sloppiness of continuity sets it back. "The Book of Eli" suffers from not exploring its themes intriguingly enough or setting up its twist convincingly.
Robin did not see this film.
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