The Book of Eli

book_of_eli_posterMy goal moving from Blogger to WordPress was to tighten up reviews, focusing more on westerns and maybe some war movies and heist flicks thrown in for good measure. Today’s review? A sorta western. A quasi-western. Or as Wikipedia identifies it, a “neo-western.” Call it what you want but 2010’s The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic western, and an excellent one at that.

Thirty years after a war tore the world apart, apparently ripping the ozone layer to pieces, Earth is a vast wasteland where water and food are rare commodities; commodities worth fighting for and dying for. Amidst this wasteland is a man named Eli (Denzel Washington), a quiet, unassuming drifter with a mission. In his possession is a book that could potentially hold the key to mankind’s survival. Books are all but completely gone, and Eli believes his book to be the last in existence. He’s walking west to the Pacific where he hopes to find something, anything at road’s end. His travel is incredibly difficult, especially when he walks into a small, well-guarded town run by an intelligent man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who wants nothing more than to get his hands on Eli’s all-powerful book.

Variations on post-apocalyptic worlds are all the rage and have been the rage for years now, from zombies like The Walking Dead to more light-hearted like The Last Man on Earth and many more. This 2010 flick from the Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, was ahead of the curve in that department. What a good movie here. It qualifies as any number of different things, a western, an action movie, a road movie, and a faith-based story, even as an artsy film. The beauty of that is ‘Eli’ works bouncing among those descriptions. It is never limited and encompasses all of the above.

Like the best post-apocalyptic efforts, ‘Eli’ gives a sense of what the world has become. In bits and pieces we learn of what’s become of the world as some sort of nuclear apocalypse tore the Earth apart, leaving survivors but not in good shape. There is little color now – the Hughes Bros. desaturating the actual film – so everything looks washed out, bland and bleak. Wreckage and carnage line the roads, and small remnants of what the world used to be always hang in the not too far-off distance, whether it be a burned-out car, a collapsed highway, a decrepit home. This is one nasty, filthy world where just survival is incredibly difficult and comes at a high price.

Who better to navigate this world than one of the coolest actors ever? No one! Denzel Washington is a perfect lead here, a quiet, soft-spoken man who only reacts with violence when pushed, when his life and mission are on the line. When he does react….watch out. He’s equally good with machete, pistol or sawed-off shotgun. Just like the war’s back-story, we learn of Eli’s past in snippets, including the most important being why he’s risking his life to protect a book, even if it may be THE book. It is an understated, moving, and highly effective performance from one of my favorite actors.

Gary Oldman is equal parts The Man. He’s a welcome addition to any movie I’m watching. The supremely talented actor can bounce back effortlessly between good and bad, and he’s leaning BAD here. His Carnegie is a fascinating character, a power-hungry, aging man who remembers what life used to be. He knows the potential Eli’s book has and could have in controlling the masses. Their scenes crackle as two heavyweights go toe-to-toe to see who comes out on top.

Also look for Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, scene-stealing Ray Stevenson as Carnegie’s enforcer, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon, Evan Jones, Joe Pingue, Tom Waits, and an uncredited Malcolm McDowell in a key part late. Kunis is solid, but I still hear Meg Griffin, Stevenson is excellent as is Beals, Waits another scene-stealer in his short scenes, and McDowell? An interesting part considering one of his most famous roles, A Clockwork Orange.

I don’t have too much to complain about at all here. The action is supremely exciting and stylish, like Eli taking on small gangs of bandits, killers and looters in one rush…several times. There are shootouts, fistfights, brawls, and some cool car chases in the finale. The highlight though is obvious; Washington’s Eli taking on six hijackers in a highway underpass. We only see silhouettes as Eli dispatches the fast-moving gang, with Washington performing his own stunts in a scene that was shot unedited with no cuts. Damn impressive!

A lot to talk about, but I don’t want to give too much away. I’m not an overly religious fella, but I like the simplicity of religion here. It’s a story that isn’t heavy-handed but far more subtle in its portrayal of religion, and more importantly, faith. We learn more about that in the second half, both in terms of the story and character development on many different folks. The ending itself is beautiful, aided by a moving score from Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne, and a voiceover from Eli. Quite the memorable ending.

Also – no spoilers – but there’s a doozy of a twist here. I maintain that the twist was a touch unnecessary but even re-visiting the movie, it works and generally holds up. That twist definitely adds a layer to the proceedings too, making things that much more interesting to contemplate and at least consider. You don’t have to believe it or even go along with it, but it should provide some fun, lively conversations. It did for me! Highly recommended flick that is well worth checking out.

The Book of Eli (2010): ***/****

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