29 May 2010

Movie Review: The Book of Eli



C

The Book of Eli
2010, 118mins, 15
Director (s): The Hughes Brothers
Writer: Gary Whitta
Cast includes: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon, Ray Stevenson
UK Release Date: 15th January 2010

I’m ashamed to admit it, but prior to viewing “The Book of Eli” I’d only seen one picture directed by the Hughes Brothers. 2001’s “From Hell” was a stylish and lightly entertaining Jack the Ripper thriller, but it was hardly a masterpiece. “The Book of Eli” is also gorgeously shot but on this occasion the story feels particularly malnourished, this post-apocalyptic yarn morphing into an unfortunate sermon before it concludes. The screenplay uses an inventive mechanism to get the ball rolling, but as the plot progresses it becomes unfathomably lean, and due to one dimensional characterization the talented cast can’t save the production.

“The Book of Eli” is set 30-years after the apocalypse. The film follows Eli (Denzel Washington) a lone traveller, who God has entrusted to transport the last remaining copy of the Bible west. The roads are roamed by bandits and thugs, but Eli is a powerful and determined combatant, going to any bloody lengths in order to preserve the sacred text he carries. Eli stumbles into a rundown community led by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man determined to uncover his own copy of the Bible, in order so that he might uses it’s words to expand his empire and utilize it as a psychological weapon. Upon discovering that Eli possesses the book, Carnegie sets out to get it, but Eli now accompanied by a young woman from the town (Mila Kunis); won’t give up his quest easily.

Much like vampires, the apocalypse has been in vogue for the last few years. Movies such as “I Am Legend”, “The Road” and “2012” have been regulars at multiplexes, which begs the question, when will the masses grow tired of all this end of the world shenanigans? At least “The Book of Eli” sets out in principal to do something a little different, even if it is mostly unsuccessful. The film suggests that it is faith which should rule our heads in times of distress, and the inclusion of the bible is an undoubtedly shrewd narrative move. These surface changes at least give “The Book of Eli” an original premise on which to play itself out. Of course there are several derivative facets (as per usual everybody in these worlds looks like they’re going to a Nine Inch Nails gig), but on the whole one has to applaud the intelligent and fresh deployment of religious texts and soulful themes.

Denzel Washington is perfectly fine as Eli, but there really isn’t much to it. All the role requires is that Washington look suitably badass in a fight and that he sounds credible when spilling religious mumbo-jumbo. The actor is better here than he was in last year’s poor redo of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3”, but given Washington’s talents he really should be aiming for loftier roles, or at least slightly more complex ones. Gary Oldman is in full autopilot mode as the bad guy, hitting the same crazed villainous beats we’ve seen the actor chew through before. Much like the leading man, Oldman is capable of better. A little more effective is Mila Kunis who plays out a sense of naivety competently and creates a believable connection with Washington; albeit the actress looks a little too well groomed to be coming from such dirge infested surroundings. Michael Gambon and Malcolm McDowell both cameo, but neither gets enough time to make much of an impression.

The screenplay offers some interesting ideas, but from a storytelling perspective it’s definitely on the thin side. The plot glides along without much depth and at times little logic, “The Book of Eli” asking viewers to suspend disbelief in a major way on a few occasions. A tighter ending would probably have helped tremendously, but it wouldn’t have completely cured the slight opening and middle acts. The film lacks dramatic beef, settling for scenes of well choreographed action and solid cinematography to plug the gaps. Sadly by the end both these elements have grown tired and obvious, rendering the picture a storytelling stillborn that no amount of visual skill can revive.

The finish here is a particularly poor way to culminate the tale, the picture becoming victim to an increasingly preachy tone. The final reveals will also leave viewers dissatisfied, they don’t really add up, with one in particular (involving a character having memorized something) smearing an ill judged layer of pointlessness over the whole adventure. “The Book of Eli” isn’t a terrible film, and action junkies should enjoy its sequences of Denzel kicking butt, yet it’s hard to describe the picture as anything other than expertly photographed but disposable Hollywood filmmaking. I for one would like more than that from my movies.

A review by Daniel Kelly, 2010

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