Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Movie Review :: The Book Of Eli

The Book Of Eli is part Samurai movie, part western, and part Mad Max. The main character, Eli (Denzel Washington) is on a cross-country journey through a desert wasteland to deliver a very special book. But this isn't just any old book, it's the last book of its kind, and it has sent Eli on a 30 year journey across post-apocalyptic America to make sure that the notable tome stays safe.

Along the way, Eli encounters highway bandits dressed as Road Warrior video game rejects (I always wonder why people all dress in some weird stylized way in the post-apocalypse. It's as if no clothing stores make it through the end of the world). But Eli is on a special journey, and his speed and agility are no match for anyone who challenges him.

When Eli enters a town to stock up on clean water, which is a scarce commodity in the barren land, he runs into a group of toughs led by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman). It just so happens that Carnegie is looking for the book that Eli has, and Eli must fight his way out of town and escape with his book. He continues the last part of his journey with the help of young Solara (Mila Kunis), and together they must avoid the pursuing Carnegie and his post-apocalyptic gang.

The Hughes Brothers, who have written and directed this movie, are not breaking any new ground in this film. We've seen this brand of post-apocalyptic nightmare before in movies like A Boy And His Dog, The Road Warrior, and even Terminator Salvation. Certain rules apply to all of these moves: the roads are the most dangerous place, water is hard to come by, the world is a desert wasteland with few places to hide, etc.

They also aren't covering any new ground when it comes to the bad guys. We've seen the type of gangsterism in some of the best Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns. A bad guy runs a lawless town with an iron fist and no concern for morality. Gary Oldman as Carnegie chews the scenery with the best of them and is a pure joy to watch.

There is only one thing that makes this movie different than those mentioned previously: the book. The book is not just a plot device to get Eli into fight scenes and to motivate his journey. Like Bilbo's journey in The Lord of the Rings the book is at the very heart of his quest. Unlike Bilbo, however, Eli is in some ways a monk or a prophet, sent on his journey by mysterious spiritual forces after the "flash" that destroyed the world. This serves to lift the movie up above it's well-worn premise, and gives his journey more weight and purpose beyond being a good man in a bad world.

The acting is truly terrific by all involved. Denzel Washington's quiet, praying, contemplative Eli is a remarkable character. When he does have to fight, it is lightning quick and brutal. He may be a moral man, but his journey is an unforgiving one. He must fight to survive against the worst of people, and he shows them no mercy when confronted. But he also takes no pride in his abilities. He has a buddhist monk-like quality to accept what he is and what he does. There is no moral confusion in what he must do. All that matters is protecting the book he carried for so long.

The only disappointing spot among the acting is Mila Kunis' Solara. It's not that she's a bad, but the problem is in how she dresses and how she carries herself. She doesn't look or act like a person who has been raised in a difficult world of murder and rape. Instead she looks like she showers everyday and carries herself with a child-like innocence that makes little sense in the context of her living conditions. This could almost be the post-apocalypse according to Old Navy, where if you're going to live in the worst times in history, you might as well look good doing it.

The movie isn't perfect and has many glaring flaws (Carnegie is looking for the book Eli is carrying, but when they capture Eli and throw him into a cell they don't search his backpack? And why does Solara suddenly find the need to repeat a prayer that Eli teaches her in front of the secretive and unforgiving Carnegie?). But even so, it is a decent film that managed to hold my attention for the full length. It is also a sort of film you don't see very often today, as it takes its time in developing the plot and is in no hurry to get you to the next fight, the next explosion, or the next bad situation. It's a nice change of pace from the bombastic blockbusters  to which we have become so accustomed. It is a worthy addition to a well known genre that rises above others of its like.

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