Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Book of Eli (2010) Review

The Book of Eli
Deliver us a good movie Hughes Brothers, please?

As I have written in my Dead Presidents review, I have a tremendous amount of faith in the Hughes Brothers as directors. I also have quite a lot of faith and respect for Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. Mila Kunis, not so much (although I do like her on That 70’s Show). Funny that I’m talking about faith so much, because that’s what got me interested in seeing The Book of Eli, or more broadly, religion. The first few times I saw the previews, I saw a cool and stylish, if more than a little derivative, post-apocalyptic action movie that could be pretty entertaining. But around the third viewing (I love the second trailer), I began to notice the shades of religion peppered throughout. This got me intrigued, as now I was seeing a new twist on an otherwise well-worn genre as of late. And because I had just seen Daybreakers, a movie that I felt capitalized on its unique sensibilities, I had the feeling (faith?) that I would have the same reaction to Eli, despite being released in the typically unremarkable January (a month that Hollywood usually treats as a dumping ground for weaker movies). Does my hope come to a satisfying conclusion, or does it begin to fade out?

Plot Synopsis: A mysterious wanderer, who we assume is named Eli based on his name tag, is traveling along the road of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. The land is devoid of almost all life, with the exception of the occasional animal or pack of cannibalistic humans. Eventually he comes to a town run by man named Carnegie. Carnegie has been searching for a mysterious book that he believes will give him the power to recreate humanity with him as its leader. Eli is just passing through but he draws the attention of Carnegie, who is impressed by Eli’s combat skills and wants him to stay. Eli, however, is undeterred on his journey west, but agrees to stay the night. Carnegie tries to use his stepdaughter Solara to attempt to get Eli to cooperate, but he instead tries to teach her some values from his book. The book that Eli owns turns out to be the Bible, which is exactly what Carnegie has been seeking, but Eli will not give it up because he believes it will be put to better use out west. But Eli escapes from the town with Solara in tow, and Carnegie’s gang chasing after them.


I’m afraid to say that The Book of Eli is strike two in the Hughes’ batting record (I still have not caught From Hell). But while Menace II Society showed tremendous amounts of promise and Dead Presidents was a well-directed misstep, Eli is a deeply flawed epic. For one thing, it takes WAY too much inspiration from The Road. Monochromatic cinematography, packs of cannibals, a character named Eli, and…well…the constant travel down a single road? It’s too much. The Hughes Brothers don’t even seem to attempt to hide the similarities (unlike how Avatar smartly put a new spin on it’s inspirations). And I swear that one of the bandits even looked a lot like Viggo Mortensen’s character! The plot eventually begins to branch out into the religious elements of the story, but the first half-hour or so is ripped straight from the adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s classic. But what about the religious aspects? Well, um, I’m kind of conflicted on this one. The different ways that Eli and Carnegie interpret the sacred Bible are very thought provoking, and the representation of Eli as a messiah on his journey west makes the character more interesting, but the movie’s heavy reliance on faith and God’s protection during action scenes becomes absurd.

As visual stylists, the Hughes Brothers still remain as a strong force. Although it isn’t very original, the washed-out look in the movie befits the story and provides some great visuals on occasion. Where the brothers slip up is when they resort to some of their more over-the-top flourishes (which began to show up in the climax of Dead Presidents). The slow-motion tracking shots that follow arrows and rockets are cool to look at, but woefully out-of-place in the gritty atmosphere that has been established. One shootout recalls a similar one in Bad Boys II where the camera moves in and out of walls to show both sides shooting in one seemingly long shot. Once again, nice to look at, but it doesn’t fit with the tone. Speaking of which, the movie keeps a tone of solemn reality and darkness for most of the running time, but tends to veer off into jarring instances of black comedy that don’t gel very well. There’s a resilient old couple that cracks jokes and act like an end-of-the-world variant on Burt and Heather Gummer from Tremors. Some of the action bits are unintentionally funny in their execution. It also doesn’t help that the plot is riddled with holes, not the least of which is Solara’s unexplained escape and the movie’s conclusion.


Thankfully, the movie has two heavyweight actors on both sides that help keep things together. With Denzel Washington as Eli, you can be sure that you will see plenty of badass presence. Denzel’s Eli has a quiet mysticism to him that is reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, where he can be seemingly quaint and unobtrusive one minute but then cut your hand off with his big knife if you cross him. Plus, he has God on his side, so as if him being dangerous on his own wasn’t enough, you REALLY don’t want to cross him. To counter Washington in the acting department is Gary Oldman, who plays Carnegie. For those who only know Oldman for his quiet roles as Sirius Black (Harry Potter) and Commissioner Gordon (Dark Knight) are in for quite a treat as they experience the kind of role that he played in his early years. Oldman deliciously chews into the scenery with relish, while his clearly evil intentions are mixed in with moments of vulnerability and weakness. Mila Kunis, as she was in Max Payne, feels very out of place in the role of Solara. She’s not so bad in the beginning, but by the time the script calls for her to get in on the action, Kunis doesn’t fit the bill. And for all you Flashdance fans out there who aren’t sure, yes that is Jennifer Beals as Claudia, Solara’s blind mother. But don’t hold her previous credits against her, because Beals is much more comfortable with the tone of the material, convincingly pulling off the blind aspect and expressing her sadness and frustration with her living aptly.

So all is decent and fun so far, until it hits you…the ending. You know the ending of the Planet of the Apes remake that didn’t really make sense? Yeah, well something similar happens here. When it happened, I was sort of intrigued by the religious meanings of this revelation, but then I realized that it only made the movie incomprehensible and harder to swallow. Writer Gary Whitta lets his intentions run too far, and the movie won’t be able to stand up to repeat viewings with its logic. But even as a one time experience, The Book of Eli doesn’t do much to differentiate itself from the glut of apocalyptic movies we have seen recently, and what it does offer doesn’t always work.


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