Movie review in the Friday Oregonian....
I want to make this clear right at the start: "The Book of Eli" is derivative as all get-out. It's an action movie smashed together from the pulp of seemingly every post-apocalyptic flick ever made -- from "The Omega Man" to "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome" to "Children of Men" -- with Westerns and Biblical epics thrown in for good measure.
But as derivative movies go, "Eli" goes down fairly smoothly, thanks to an unusually strong cast and strong visual ideas from co-directing brothers Albert and Allen Hughes.
The story sort of plays like a thrill-ride version of "The Road," with healthier-looking cannibals and a sillier ending. Eli (Denzel Washington) plays that most clichéd of apocalypse heroes: the lone man walking the post-nuclear wasteland in slo-mo, looking incredibly cool and somehow possessing morals and ammunition the rest of society lost long ago.
The twist here is that in addition to his machete and 9 mm (and working iPod -- don't ask), Eli also carries a Bible. It's apparently one of the last tomes of Christian scripture on Earth, and our hero is bringing it west with a holy sense of mission.
Unfortunately, Eli's scavenging, slo-mo walking and well-choreographed brawls with man-eating rapists are interrupted when the leader of a startup community (Gary Oldman) decides he needs the Good Book all to himself. Oldman is always fun to watch in genre pieces, because there's a chance he'll indulge his hilarious tendency to yell his lines and twitch (see: this moment from "Leon: The Professional"), and he doesn't disappoint here -- snarling at his henchmen that he wants the Bible because "It's a WEAPON!!!" he can use to control the illiterate masses.
(Of course, if no one can read or remembers that the Bible even existed 30 years after a nuclear war, I'm not sure why Oldman can't just crack open any old book and tell the townsfolk it's the Word of God. But whatever. This is the sort of movie that pretty much crumbles into dust under that sort of analysis. Best not to bother asking why the roads and machined metals are in such good shape, either.)
I enjoyed "Book of Eli" for exactly what it is -- a slicker-than-usual genre piece with some nicely bleak special-effects landscapes -- but I'm also well aware that it's a movie that wants to have its cake and eat it too. Eli is decidedly Old Testament about protecting the New Testament, for one thing.
The Hughes Brothers and screenwriter Gary Whitta thieve mightily from other future-wasteland flicks (they even seem to work in a few nods to "The Postman," I swear), but frankly they're fairly skilled thieves. Of note is one single-take gunfight that plays like a Joel Silver-ized "Children of Men."
The movie also makes the goofy-but-fascinating choice of taking Eli's mission from God very, very literally in a genre environment that's usually a lot more punk-rock about its cynicism. This makes "Eli" sort of wonderfully silly toward the end, as if the Hughes brothers set out to make the first-ever faith-based "Mad Max" movie.
(118 min., rated R for some brutal violence and language) Grade: C-plus
'The Book of Eli' (The Oregonian, Friday, Jan. 15, 2010)