'Book of Eli' Falls Apart
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Directed by the Hughes brothers ("From Hell," "Dead Presidents"), "The Book of Eli" starts strong and strange with a man hunting in the ash-blasted barrens of a ruined world. That strength and strangeness continue for a while, with the Hughes' style alone powerful enough to squeeze a few drops of juice from the postapocalyptic pop-culture pulp we've seen in films from "The Road Warrior" to "The Road."
"The Book of Eli" at first resembles nothing less than a Sergio Leone film: Every shot feels like it's filmed from a distance of two inches or two miles, with nothing in-between. Dusty drifter Eli (Denzel Washington) is traveling out of the wasteland with moral might, a secret piece of precious cargo and a swift-flashing knife. That Western feel stays strong through a number of scenes: an ambush, arriving in town, meeting the corrupt ruler of a community that is only slightly better than nothing.
But "The Book of Eli" loses its way not long after its big reveal, which the film's stars and advertising have already given away, so I feel no compunction in talking about it. The title volume is a Bible. Eli needs to take it west, while the ruler of the shabby, scary town Eli stumbles into, Gary Oldman's Carnegie, has been looking for one for a while. It seems all but one Bible were destroyed in the wake of the war, and Carnegie wants to use the good book for bad purposes, to help motivate and rationalize his grander plans. "It's not a book," he roars to his subordinates, including the craggy, cagey Refridge (Ray Stevenson). "It's a weapon!" (Sci-fi fans will spot plots and themes from "A Canticle for Leibowitz" and "Fahrenheit 451" between the lines of "The Book of Eli," and they won't be wrong to see them.)
That ticking sound in the back of your head is, of course, your brain mulling over the big and small problems with this. The small problems are plot-based ones. With a world-destroying war "30 winters ago," in Eli's evocative phrase, you would think people would have more pressing concerns in those three decades than seeking out and destroying every Bible (that's a lot of hotel room bedside tables to ransack), or that no one other than Eli would have kept one safe.
These quibbles are small, but it only takes a single pinpoint hole to let the air out of a balloon. The bigger problem with "Book of Eli" comes in that it's curiously mealymouthed about its ideas. Religion is bad in the hands of bad people, and good in the hands of good people. The Bible is of paramount importance, but, ultimately, shown as equivalent to other sacred texts. Gary Whitta's script is less even-handed than empty-handed, trying to have its cake and eat it, too, or, worse, have its cake and jam it down your throat.
And yet there are flashes of visual brilliance in "Book of Eli," like a gunfight in which the camera pingpongs between the firing lines with each volley, or the stark action sequences that Washington executes with authority and the Hughes brothers craft with skill. But they're not matched by the script, or the casting of Mila Kunis as Oldman's daughter and pawn, who looks less like she's walked out of an apocalyptic wasteland and more like she's walked out of a three-day spa treatment.
Washington is, as ever, pitch-perfect, lending lightweight moments his movie-star gravitas. When Eli digresses about faith by quoting a different prophet than the one you'd expect, or when Washington undersells a simple question that becomes of paramount importance early on, you recognize just how lucky the Hughes brothers, and we, are to have him. Oldman brings a nice shattered grandeur to his work, as well. You can see Carnegie thinking, even if the script doesn't give him too much to think about.
"The Book of Eli" turns its strong start and stronger style into a series of bland platitudes and predictable moments, to such a degree that the gulf between what it is and what it could have been becomes a maddening unscratchable itch. That distraction becomes infuriating as the movie builds to a twist that is somewhere between Rod Serling and M. Night Shyamalan on the continuum between crafty and cheesy. Your eyes tell you that talented people made "The Book of Eli." Your brain, and, yes, your soul, long for something both more blunt and brutal and more subtle and complex, a film that walked either the straight and narrow path of righteousness or blazed some new trail instead of frustratingly sticking with such faith and fervor to the middle of the road.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.