The Book of Eli
Denzel Washington brings depth to any character he plays, evidenced by his two Oscar statuettes. However, due to the weight he brings to the roles he’s received Oscar attention for, and his overall dramatic prowess, it is often overlooked that he has starred in many what would be considered action films. It is still odd, though, to see him in the trailers of THE BOOK OF ELI, slashing and flipping a roomful of foes around like an old school Steven Seagal (not the current “Steven Seagal:Lawman”). But the beauty of The Hughes Brothers’ film is the marriage of Washington’s gravitas in the dramatic scenes with the calm, fluid movement the action sequences require for the film. He is just as badass here as he was delivering the throat punch in HE GOT GAME, throwing around poor little Ethan Hawke in TRAINING DAY, or delivering the right hooks in THE HURRICANE.
ELI starts with our lone traveler traversing the landscape of a post-apocalyptic America. Armed with guns, a bow and arrow, and a trusty blade (what Crocodile Dundee would even consider a knife), our unnamed hero walks with a pack on his back which no one is allowed to touch. We learn this in the first action sequence, excellently shot in silhouette, as Denzel wields his blade like a sushi chef through a gang of hijackers – a common problem on the road in this desolate landscape. His pack contains a copy of the King James Bible, extinct after “The War,” which he reads every night, and readers are scarce at this time. He comes across a town run by an educated man in Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, who has a design to rule more towns, and believes a Bible would be his avenue to bending people to his will. Carnegie has a blind girlfriend in Claudia (Jennifer Beals) whose daughter, Solara, (Mila Kunis) is intrigued by the traveler and wishes to learn from him. When Carnegie learns this traveler has the last existing Bible the chase begins, led by Carnegie’s chief tough guy, Redridge, played by Ray Stevenson.
As our traveler (his name is not revealed until the last third of the film, and not said until the last tenth) works his way west, he carries himself with the stoic cool that only Denzel could deliver. His scenes reciting biblical verse are reserved yet affective, and he does the action scenes well because they don’t ask too much of him – he’s not trying to be Jackie Chan. Gary Oldman plays great bad guys, and his work here is no exception. The Hughes Brothers reigned him in a bit from such performances as the villain in LEON: THE PROFESSIONAL, but he is still nasty when he needs to be. Ray Stevenson is underused, as is Jennifer Beals (but I’ve loved her since FLASHDANCE) but the problem of casting here is Mila Kunis. She’s too pretty for a post-apocalyptic landscape, too well groomed, and I kept hearing Meg Griffin from “Family Guy” trying to hold her own in scenes with an Oscar winner. As an eccentric wild card, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour play a small but vital role in a bombastic shootout as eccentric, cannibalistic survivalists.
My biggest problem with this film is based on its veering away from what it could have been. Ray Stevenson as Carnegie’s head of security deserved a better ending than he got, and more lines… as anyone would attest to who saw Stevenson in “Rome.” Also, a climactic final scene between Carnegie and Eli would have been incredible, two educated men fighting for their prize with dialogue to match their abilities. They could have blown the doors off the theater. The film has good action, good performances by its leads, and does well to toe the line on commenting on both the importance of faith and the corruption of organized religion without preaching on either side. However, the lack of a climactic end sequence takes this down a few points from what it could be. And that is a shame considering the talent it brought to the table.