By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Lessons of Biblical proportion are harsh: plague, locusts, whatever it takes to get a decadent citizenry to stand up and take notice. In “The Book of Eli,” no less than full scale Armageddon has made the planet barely recognizable.
But wait, look, appearing through the dust, it’s a survivor. He is Eli Walker, resolutely trudging toward the horizon.
We soon learn there are pockets of others. Some live fearfully in hovels. Many have formed into bands of cutthroats who steal from the less strong. But woe unto those who attempt to compromise this proud remnant of better days, superbly played by Denzel Washington. Bold, unafraid and on a mission, he is the post-apocalyptic hero personified.
As such, he has had to equip himself not only with a firm faith and determination, but also with all the fighting skills needed to traverse a world that has reverted to an aberrant primitiveness. When it comes to cinema’s top killing machines, you can rate him right up there with Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name.
Hence, there are guilty thrills aplenty which, when combined with a complementing bit of rather well written, sociological punditry, make for a rousing and surprisingly absorbing time at the Bijou. Helping Mr. Washington establish his good guy creds by way of antithetical example, Gary Oldman is nastily terrific as the demagogic Carnegie.
A malevolent lord of the flies, Carnegie, too, has a vision, albeit completely self-serving. And also like Walker, and unlike those born after “The War,” he can read. He has had his thuggish minions combing the scorched, concrete-colored countryside in search of a specific book. But so far it’s been no dice. That is, until Walker traipses into his town.
Perhaps it’s the way the stranger carries himself, the obvious confidence and humility. Although he decimates a good portion of Carnegie’s inner retinue, Walker did first try to discourage them from their untimely but lickety-split deaths. Hmm, figures the bad guy, such power can only emanate from one who has the book. So he offers him a job.
No thanks, says our brave new road warrior, who has only stopped in hopes of getting the battery in his iPod charged and trading for whatever needed goods the local black market offered. Nope, doing the Horace Greeley redux, he has heard of more promising pastures out west. Yet under duress, he accedes to stay the night and “think it over.”
Sent to Walker’s chambers that evening to ply some gentle persuasion is Mila Kunis as the pulchritudinous Solara. The daughter of Carnegie’s blind and doubtlessly indentured mistress (Jennifer Beals), she fears that failure in the femme fatale department will spell suffering for her mom. Folklorically, she comes away enchanted by the wayfarer.
Suffice it to note, humanistic captive and nihilistic captor are soon at loggerheads, which provides for daring escapes, action-packed chase scenes and numerous violent engagements. The good fight is fought across the catastrophe-ridden landscape, a backdrop that metaphorically gasps with exhaustion from man’s indulgences.
Building on a relatively recent compilation of imagery (the “Mad Max” series, “The Postman”), directors Albert and Allen Hughes construe their idea of a world ravaged by the Big One. Exquisitely drab art direction is at once foreboding and instructive. “See what you did in the name of your one and only god?” the rubble seems to cry.
Likewise, the award-worthy costume of survival, donned here by Denzel with dressed-to-kill pragmatism, has evolved into an amalgam of L.L. Bean and army surplus by way of the second hand shop. Interestingly, though, Mr. Oldman’s warlord, who generally has others do his bidding, is outfitted in the double-knits of a sleazy nightclub impresario.
Along with the appurtenances of the day, as well as the folkways and mores of the culture, these observations keep the brutality in check. While the creative extrapolation may not be as astute as Jean-Jacques Annaud’s painstaking, interpolative peek into the past in “Quest for Fire” (1981), it is inventive enough to pique our imaginations.
The question is, while it probably delights Nostradamus, why are we so infatuated with humankind’s Grand Finale? Perhaps “The Book of Eli.” answers it in part. For in the same brain synapse that conjures the idea of apocalypse, infinity is probably right there to contradict. Walker lives. On and on it goes, and where she stops nobody knows.
In other words, there is hope. Though it sure is a cruel reckoning, and the cleanup will be a real bear, there can never really be an end, can there, Mr. Einstein? But beware. Philosophical stuff between the lines or not, the viscerally powerful aspects should very well dissuade more sensitive filmgoers from curling up with “The Book of Eli.”
“The Book of Eli,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Albert Hughes and Allen Hughes and stars Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman. Running time: 118 minutes
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