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As post-apocalyptic movie fiction goes, “The Book of Eli” is not a crowd-pleaser like the “Mad Max” series nor silly like any of the “Planet of the Apes” films. This film, the first from the Hughes Brothers in nearly nine years, instead is an intense, surprisingly serious study of a man making his way through a wilderness of catastrophic destruction and human cruelty like a latter-day prophet. An overlay of spiritual themes doesn’t always work, but “Eli” is that rare Hollywood film that posits a Christian man as its hero.
The story is couched in neo-Western terms — a solitary gunman comes to a town and confronts the corrupt sheriff and his maniacal deputies — so the movie fits comfortably within the confines of mainstream studio moviemaking. And Denzel Washington is one of the few Hollywood stars who can pull off a larger-than-life character who can dispatch a gang of cutthroats with a nasty blade yet maintain an air of saintliness.
Boxoffice should be above average for this Warner Bros. release. Don’t be surprised if the film is embraced by Christian filmgoers as the Holy Bible is seen as the point from which a new civilization can take shape.
Allen and Albert Hughes situate their story in an environment informed by graphic-novel imagery. Landscapes are stark, and characters strike poses. Working with cinematographer Don Burgess, they frequently drain the color from desolate stretches of desert (with New Mexico doing the honors). Roads are lined with ruined remnants of a prior civilization, the one before a “Flash” — which occurred during the last war — tore a hole in the sky and brought fatal, scorching light onto the Earth.
As in “Mad Max,” anarchy rules, with mayhem, murder and rape seen as routine events. Washington’s Eli claims to have walked west for 30 years, but everything looks like the bomb dropped only last month. No one has even bothered to bury bodies or develop any infrastructure.
After a “credential scene,” in which Eli demonstrates his lethal abilities when challenged, he wanders into a desert town where a tin-pot dictator named Carnegie (Gary Oldman with his patented theatrical sleaze) holds sway. There is no discernible reason why he should rule a gang unless it’s because he’s the exception to the rule of near-universal illiteracy. (Carnegie is perusing a biography of Mussolini, please note.)
When Carnegie learns that Eli possesses a Bible, he means to win him over to his cause or kill him — whatever it takes to gain control of that book. Both men see the Bible as the key to social regeneration. A voice has commanded Eli to take the Bible west, where it will be the foundation of a new Earth. Carnegie sees the book as a means of controlling people and their loyalties, as many false prophets have before him.
Caught in the showdown between two determined men are Carnegie’s adopted daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), and mistress Claudia (Jennifer Beals) as well as his henchman, Redridge (Ray Stevenson), who fancies Solara for himself. Things play out in a straight-forward fashion as screenwriter Gary Whitta gives little depth or complications to his characters or story. The Hughes Brothers’ measured, well-paced direction complements the comic-book simplicity of this narrative.
A viewer will probably be grabbed less by the showdowns than by the mannered cinematography, Gae Buckley’s eye-catching production design of a ruined Southwest and an energetic, pulsating score from Atticus Ross (assisted by Claudia Sarne and Leopold Ross). What is it about Earth’s ruin that so inspires artists?
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