Friday, January 15, 2010

Review: "The Book of Eli"

"The Book of Eli" may just be the best-looking dumb movie ever made.

I mean it: The Hughes Brothers (Albert and Allen) deliver a post-apocalyptic landscape that's bleak and gritty and so washed out of color, the movie is practically in black-and-white. Cinematographer Don Burgess, an Oscar nominee for "Forrest Gump," delivers a masterfully crafted visual banquet; its spareness is practically sumptuous.

I also mean it about the stupidity -- the Hughes boys and rookie screenwriter Gary Whitta pair these wonderful visuals with a story so nonsensical and silly, it's at least 20 I.Q. points slower than Forrest.

The setup is part "Mad Max," part "Waterworld" (sans water), part "Fallout" video game, and 100 percent bone-headed.

Denzel Washington plays the title character, a wandering badass who's been walking westward ever since nuclear war annihilated most of humanity 30 years ago. (I feel compelled to point out he must be the slowest walker ever -- even if he only hiked 10 miles a day, he could have traversed all of America dozens of times in that span.)

He carries many weapons, including firearms and a bow, but favors a freaky-looking sword that he uses to cut off the hand of a highway bandit who dares touch him in the film's opening minutes. After the rest of his gang has been messily killed, the ruffian reaches for his severed appendage, which Eli kicks out of reach. "I told you you weren't going to get that back," he says.

Clearly a bad dude, right? So perhaps it comes as a shock to learn that Eli is, in fact, a holy man. He's carrying the last Holy Bible on Earth, he says (how does he know that?). He reads it every night, and likes to quote scripture as he's filleting his enemies. But he doesn't seem to live by its precepts very much -- certainly not the turn the other cheek stuff.

Still, it's a pretty cool world that's been painted for us. I'm a sucker for stories about mankind squabbling over the flotsam of their dead society. "We threw things away that people kill each other over now," Eli observes.

But then things get screwy.

Eli wanders into a town run by a boss named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who's been sending his road gangs out to search for a Bible. It seems in the aftermath of the war, there was a concerted effort (by whom, it's never stated) to burn all the Bibles. Carnegie, a schemer who rules through his wits rather than his muscle, figures to use the holy words as a "weapon" with which he can gather people to him and thereby gain power.

Now, if Carnegie is smart enough to realize religion can be used for nefarious purposes, why does he need a Bible? He could just dream up his own religion, inventing whatever rules and commandments he wanted to suit his purposes, and achieve exactly the same effect. Since Eli has the only Bible, who's to contest Carnegie's version of scripture?

But no, once Carnegie learns that Eli has a Bible, he sends hordes of men with guns after him to procure it.

Eli himself is a little more circumspect about his purposes. All he will say is that he's walking westward until he finds a place where the book is needed. Even Solara, a town girl who tags along with Eli, can't get much more information out of him than that, although he does teach her to say grace before meals. Solara is played by Mila Kunis, who has a knack for comedy but should step away from dramatic material -- she's just this side of awful in this movie.

I don't want to give away too much about the plot, other than to say when Eli's final destination is revealed, one realizes that all of Carnegie's sacrifices have been for naught. He could have just waited in his town until the Bible came back to him.

The film's other idiocies are multitudinous. For example, there's a little ritual the people in town do to prove they're not cannibals: Making others hold up their hands to see if they shake. Eating too much human meat, you see, causes one to have tremors. Eli and Solara learn this for certain when they stumble upon a seemingly nice old couple in the wasteland who have lots of guns and lots of shakes. I guess it sounds neat, until one wonders what biophysical effect one could possibly have from eating human flesh, other than anorexia.

Speaking of which -- for a setting in which everyone is constantly scrapping for food and water, Denzel Washington and the rest of the cast look suspiciously well-fed. I would think double-chins and bellies would be a rarity in the after-apocalypse. Only Oldman looks sufficiently gaunt and withered to belong to the wasteland.

And that's not even getting into the film's metaphysical posturing. The Hughes boys seem to suggest that there is actually something supernatural at work here, particularly with Eli's preternaturally fast combat moves. At one point he takes out a whole gang of men with rifles using only a pistol, which seems to hold an infinite amount of bullets.

But don't be fooled by its great looks: "The Book of Eli" is so stupid, it's almost unholy.

1.5 stars

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