The Hughes Brothers don't exactly have a lot of films under their belt -- in fact, it's been nine years since the release of their fourth feature film, From Hell, and while that film got mixed reviews, you have to admit that it looked good, if a little grisly. Ditto Book of Eli, which is visually stunning in some places, as the Hugheses capture and artificially create the bleak landscape of a post-nuclear America. And they certainly don't shy away from violence, as arrows pierce people's necks and knives sever appendages with regularity. Hell, they kill a cat in the opening scene. If that sort of thing gets you upset -- more upset than humans getting killed, which also happens a lot -- then you may want to pass on this movie, but you'll miss out on pretty good action flick, with some great cinematography and some decent performances, too.
Denzel Washington is Eli, a lone traveler heading west 30 years after the "flash" that left most of the population dead, stopping along the way only to sleep, forage for shoes, hunt for catmeat and recharge his iPod battery. (Yes, he has an iPod.) He also reads his Bible every day. He tends to avoid strangers, staying on "the path," but if bandits try to rob him, he goes all knife-wielding samurai on them. Meanwhile, Gary Oldman plays Carnegie, a guy who runs a town that Eli passes through. He reads a lot, and he is constantly sending men out to search for books, although he seems to get a lot of Da Vinci Code and O magazine, and not the book he really wants -- the Bible. It seems Bibles are hard to come by nowadays (a point that is explained later in the film), and when Eli the Samurai attracts Oldman's attention by killing a large number of his men (in self-defense), Oldman finds out about his precious cargo, which he wants for expansionist purposes. The movie turns into a chase through the desert -- continuing the Mad Max feel the movie has already established. (A motorcycle gang attacking a woman along the road as Eli watches and does nothing feels like a direct homage to the scene early on Road Warrior.)
Critics are raving about Washington's performance, but he mostly acts tired, with bouts of conflict-avoiding simpering and soft-spoken bad-assery. He's still pretty good, but Gary Oldman outshines him as the power-hungry bibliophile who rules his town with a iron fist. Former Punisher Ray Stevenson is also a treat, playing Carnegie's intelligent but frustrated enforcer, but Jennifer Beals is just okay as Carnegie's blind mistress Claudia. We get some humor courtesy of Tom Waits as the town tinkerer, and Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour (Harry Potter's Dumbledore and Madame Maxine, in a clever pairing) as a couple of heavily armed homesteaders, but Mila Kunis may get the biggest laughs of the movie. She starts out as the beaten-down daughter of Claudia, who does whatever Carnegie tells her to. But after traveling with Eli for a while -- looking less like a nomad and more like a New York fashionista in skinny jeans -- she becomes something of a badass, shooting Uzis and rolling grenades. You never quite buy it, because she looks like she's 12 years old, but it's entertaining nonetheless.
It's hard to tell whether the film is saying that religion is the cause of all man's problems or the solution -- at times it seems to be saying both, which is probably the safest answer -- but there is one clear message, which is that young people are stupid. People over 30 are rare in Eli's world, and those under 30 were raised with no television, no books and often no sense of decency. So when old fogeys like Carnegie and the engineer talk about how good things were "back in the '90s," they aren't just talking about having batteries, they're talking about living in a world where you didn't have to pull guns on potential customers, or kill a bar full of people over a perceived offense towards a cat. One could argue that that description is as true today as it would be in Eli's post-apocalyptic world. Of course, the film's kinda-sorta twist ending may be an even more damning criticism of people over 30, and how their lack of foresight led us to this desolate wasteland, but that may be reading too much into it.
Write your book-jacket blurb for The Book of Eli below, then check out the Children's Book of Eli for younger readers!