Now Playing: Denzel is God’s samurai in ‘The Book of Eli’

15 Jan

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The Book of Eli (R) 118 min. Directed by: Albert & Allen Hughes Written by: Gary Whitta Starring: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson Cinematography: Don Burgess Original Score: Atticus Ross

3.5 marias

The apocalypse has never looked better or felt sharper than it does in The Book of Eli, the newest end-of-the-world thriller from the previously MIA Hughes Brothers.

Bearing the brunt of the movie’s gritty but hopeful through line comes Denzel Washington, striding through the ashy, barren wastelands of an America gone to permanent ruin. He’s carrying with him what he believes is the hope of humanity. Unfortunately, the opportunistic despot, Carnegie (played by a deviously bloated Gary Oldman) also desires it, and the rest of the picture develops into the modern American equivalent of a samurai movie. You can cite the western if you want, but Eli’s poise, resolve and code of combat suggest the bushido of a wandering ronin. Throw in brutal but fluid action sequences, an interesting and thought provoking spiritual subtext, and you have the best post-apocalyptic thrill ride since The Road Warrior

Recently, perhaps linked to a communal anxiety about social decline, there have been numerous pictures detailing the end of all things. Eli starts out as more of the same, but offers something that most pictures of it’s ilk don’t; hope.  There may be very little of it, and it may be ephemeral at best, but Washington’s Eli carries it with him like a burning beacon and it motivates him to bring a steely resolve and a swift justice to the barbarism he finds in his midst.

Book-Of-Eli_jpg_595x325_crop_upscale_q85 In the McCarthy adaptation, we watched the end times blur the moral fortitude of Mortensen’s Man to the point that he strands a defenseless wretch without clothes and protection just because he’s been wronged. This might be a relatively honest portrayal of human behavior, but it rendered that film flat and gray. A long slog through the death of mankind. Book knows we need a little more if we are going to follow through such turbulent waters, and it gives us Washington as a terrifying and welcome paradox; a righteous man…with a machete.

Eli has been walking his way across the country for some time when he ends up happening upon a small, dusty town overseen by Carnegie, a man who knows where the wellsprings are and has a series of refurbished towns going up around them. What he doesn’t have is a means to properly motivate a young populace who were born into this sinkhole of a planet. It is implied that a nuclear war ripped a whole in the sky, and the Sun did the rest of the damage. What he needs now is something to cultivate hope, purpose and structure. When he learns that Eli possesses a certain book, he sets out with his henchman (led by the effective Ray Stevenson) to claim it.

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The essential structure of the movie operates around that basic premise, but what works is the dichotomy between all of the characters and the plausibility that the visual aspects of the film give the story. In addition to those mentioned, there is also Jennifer Beals, long past her Flashdance days, as a blind woman whom Carnegie both dominates and dotes on, Solara (Mila Kunis) her daughter, and Michael Gambon as a cannibalistic farmer who, along with his wife, has managed to keep his ranch functioning as an oasis of civility amidst the chaos. All of them orbit Washington, who is giving one of the finest and most specific performances of his career.

The world at large has fallen so far that men will kill other men just for a single solitary packet of wet naps. The youth are so shiftless and grim that one hears a baby wailing in the streets and no one even turns around. It’s the worst parts of the biblical account of Lamentations, and into this Eli comes like an Old Testament prophet. He is an honest and forthright man. When he kills he does so without hesitation or passion, swinging his weapons with utter conviction and dedication.

Carnegie sends Solara to his room to bed him, but he offers her a meal instead—she’s never eaten across from someone before in a social ritual—and when he prays with her, his prayers too are simple and immediate. “Thank you Lord for shelter and the gift of companionship.” He is headed West, following a voice that is spurring him onwards. Washington makes him sympathetic and heroic, but we never forget he’s a killer. He draws the line between the character’s courage and his self-absorption and lets us glimpse walls falling down that Eli himself is not even aware of.

SNF1515B_682_965986aKunis  has finally shrugged off the last vestiges of her 70’s Show persona. Granted, it’s the typical youth following the aging warrior, but she’s got a fiery resilience and an inherent sadness that works here. At some point she’s decided to build off the idea that her character has only ever known a reality of hardship and delivers surprise into Solara’s eyes when she realizes that the world can not only be kinder than she thought, it can still be crueler too. In the universe of Eli, even hers has been a privileged life. Beals is good in her brief part, but there’s not much to her character. Still, it’s nice to see her again, and at first I didn’t recognize her. Hopefully this might draw some welcome attention back her way.

Gambon also is in precious little of the film, but he makes the scene he is in terrifically entertaining. Lets just say it involves lots and lots of guns. Finally, there is Goldman playing the corrupt Samurai Lord or the Cattle Baron or whatever you want to call it. He’s a cracked leader who has abandoned a sense of anything but selfish pursuit. He’s chomping up scenery like he’s in a Luc Besson film, slightly dialed down. It shows exquisite restraint on his part to not utter the lines “Get me….EVVVVERRRYOONNNE!” even though the Hughes give him ample opportunity to do so.

the_book_of_eli-14 As scripted, The Book of Eli is an ambitious but goofy piece of work. What transforms it into proper science fiction and a movie well worth returning to, over and over, is the Hughes direction. The set design is wonderfully real and nicely stylized. Everything looks worn down and dirty, but it isn’t so repellent that we feel like we need change our socks the minute the movie is over. There’s a terrible beauty to the landscapes presented, and some variation as well. The opening scene where a hunter stalks a hairless cat through a forest of falling ash has to be seen to be believed.

The action scenes are perfectly choreographed and have the benefit of being coherently filmed. There are few cuts, and what we have to savor is a balletic dance of death that lasts maybe minutes at best. I was reminded of the Zatoichi: The Blind Samurai films from the 60s and 70s. A shootout later in the film is crafted in such a way that we feel we are catching everything from the bullets perspective and then are violently turned around and hurtling into the barrel end of a gatling gun. The thrills are legitimately thrilling and the scenes have an immediacy because we can identify with Washington’s Eli. When Solara joins him on his quest, this Lone Wolf finally has a Cub to train, and the movie explores yet another facet of the character.

There is some great direction going on in Book of Eli. The Hughes may give us just one too many scenes of Denzel walking in badass slow motion across the broiling desert, but they have a steady hand on the film and they really make the premise sing despite some goofy speed bumps. Chief among these is making the faith aspect stand up and command respect amidst so much potential schlock. They let a lot of their film ride on Washington’s shoulders, but they never let it get beyond them. Each piece has been carefully considered including the potentially embarrassing ending (which I honestly didn’t see coming) and the strange, discordant score by Atticus Ross that sounds like Tangerine Dream learned to play the didgeridoo.

The whole thing feels like a Ridley Scott film from the 80s, but there’s more inherent humanity in the character interactions. I personally loved the film and was surprised by how effective it’s spiritual angle ends up being. I walked away thinking that this was the first time I felt any sense of uplift at the end of an apocalypse movie. And that indeed is something to take note of. 

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11 Responses to “Now Playing: Denzel is God’s samurai in ‘The Book of Eli’”

  1. koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 3:42 pm #

    I feel like Denzel is looking a little too old for this. Also I just don’t like Mila Kunis outside of Meg. Keep Oldman recast the rest…..(Jai White anyone?)

  2. Bartleby January 15, 2010 at 3:53 pm #

    go see it Koutch….being a bit older works for Denzel in this particular role. And his action scenes are similar to samurai movies, which often had aging actors slicing and dicing enemies into peices because it primarly required them to stand still and swing a sword.

    • koutchboom January 15, 2010 at 4:46 pm #

      You go see it.

  3. herr milflover January 15, 2010 at 5:57 pm #

    Wow.
    Just… wow.

    I just came back from seeing it, and you are absolutely dead on with your review!
    What an excellent, beautiful movie! The cinematography is just so gorgeous, everything looks just perfect, I loved every second of it.

    The whole cast did a remarkable job. I dont think Denzel is too old, his character is an older seasoned survivor and he is totally believable as Eli. And that’s coming from a guy who usually doesnt like him, he’s a great actor but he rarely does it for me. Here he just nails it.
    I also agree that Mila Kunis is finally showing us some potential beyond sitcom level, who’d have thought she could actually act?

    So yeah, highest possible recommendation to everyone!

    Looking forward to The Book Of Solara now…..

  4. Cello January 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm #

    just saw it, loved it, review coming Monday — don’t want to steal your thunder ;P

  5. hagiblog January 16, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    I’m glad to hear this one was good since I have wanted to see it. Now I just have to find the time and money to pull it off. Denzel is very good in everything I’ve seen him in and it sounds like it’s more of the same here.

  6. Clockworthy January 18, 2010 at 5:28 pm #

    I am in complete agreement. If one wanted to convert a slasher to religion, this is the movie to do it.

    It sort of makes you want to do good, before the world ends, of course.

  7. lord bronco January 20, 2010 at 8:37 pm #

    We had a similar discussion at AIBN about this picture-and I professionally rated it at lets say 3.5 out of 5.0. Personally, I’m right at 4.5 for geek factor-for cast-for action, for best video game movie adaptation movie made yet-for lots of reasons.

    I actually thought Mila 70s show was actually quite good for long stretches of the movie, and that she was game as an actress to really go there to film scenes that had actual menace to them.

    My thoughts today a couple days later was that the movie is slick, but it has no CGI action scenes! which I really really dug. Yes CGI compositing which actually looked great, but was thankfully understated.

    There’s really minor quibbles here and there, but this really was a movie that I think significantly added to the Hughes Brothers portfolio.

  8. J Ewing January 26, 2010 at 3:48 pm #

    So, was Eli blind?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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