In the recent flurry of doomsday thrillers featuring surreal, decimated landscapes and hordes of malnourished mutants, The Book of Eli, co-directed by Albert and Allen Hughes stands out as a classic example of what should properly be termed deception by marketing campaign. Unlike such contenders for genre top prize as adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road (2009) or even Will Smith’s star vehicle I Am Legend (2007), the film desperately attempts to sell itself via martial arts sequences and Matrix-lite characters popping up throughout its trailer, but not even Denzel Washington in the lead role can save this work from feeling like an old record, a recycled cliche.
Eli (Denzel Washington) is traveling solo on a mission that will take him across the urban wasteland of post-apocalyptic America to deliver a sacred book to the library at civilization’s last outpost on the island of Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. Toughened by the unforgiving environment and his nomadic lifestyle, the lone traveler carries a long hunting machete that could easily rival Crocodile Dundee’s, confronts dozens of unwashed assailants and patiently hunts mutated cat-like creatures for food. A vintage MP3 player running on cat oil, a retro Johnny Cash soundtrack and lots of faith – that’s all he needs to keep on going in this hellish land plagued by “road crews” and where the air is filled with nuclear ash and shampoo has replaced the gold standard.
All goes well on Eli’s journey though the barrens – beautifully shot and edited with cinematography that brings to mind images from the highly aesthetic Northfork (2003) – until he is stopped by a band of motorcycle brigands who arrest and take him into town to see their boss, local strongman Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Intrigued by Eli’s martial arts abilities, Carnegie asks him some questions and attempts to recruit him to work for the gang, but when the latter firmly refuses lets him stay the night anyway.
Still suspicious of the mysterious visitor, Carnegie sends Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce Eli and find out his secrets, in particular whether he may know anything about a certain book the evil mastermind believes contains within it great power. Unresponsive to Solara’s advances, Eli does fails to reveal much about himself, but Solara does catch a glimpse of a large, heavy volume he carries in his backpack and, when pressured, passes that information on to Carnegie.
As guards are sent in to permanently part Eli with his book, however, he manages to escape from his cell and create chaos in Carnegie’s residence. The book changes hands several times throughout the film and eventually ends up on Carnegie’s desk only to prove completely unusable when it is revealed to contain blank pages with perforations for the blind. Whether this discovery should be taken to suggest karate master Eli is in fact blind would be anyone’s fair guess, but more importantly bad guy Carnegie fails to obtain what he wants. Disgusted by Carnegie’s treatment, Solara switches sides to join forces with Eli, who reluctantly accepts her to be his traveling companion as they make their way to the West Coast and deliver the sacred knowledge actually stored in Eli’s mind, not his book.
With scenes that make the content of M-rated gore-fest Fallout 3 look like child’s play, The Book of Eli presents its audience with a nightmarish vision of the end days set in the dusty Old West, an experience that is at once dark, brutal and peppered with foul language. Very heavy on Tarantino-esque pretention and gratuitous violence from its opening scenes to the closing credits, the work appears to interpret film noir essentially as a mindless frenzy of shabbily dressed lunatics slicing off each other’s limbs with machetes – and thus fails dramatically to build credibility as the refined genre piece it purports itself to be.
As if to reaffirm the film’s religious tilt, Eli prays before eating and miraculously manages to dictate the holy book in its entirely from memory alone in the film’s finale. Given that The Book of Eli seems to take itself so seriously when it comes to matters of style and yet is surprisingly light on substance, the choice of the Holy Bible as the much-coveted book Eli has set out to deliver comes across as almost laughable, giving the picture an air of moralistic preaching – a clearly misplaced, hardliner religious sermon the appeal of which would be limited to Christian fundamentalists at best.
The Book of Eli (2010)
Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes
Starring: Denzel Washington (Eli), Mila Kunis (Solara)
Genre: Action | Adventure | Drama | Thriller | Western
Runtime: 118 mins | Country: US | Language: English