Far from perfect but definitely underrated, The Book of Eli (2010) runs an interesting variation on the post-apocalyptic genre. Denzel Washington plays Eli, a former K-Mart clerk carrying a Bible across the wasteland and protecting it, mainly from Gary Oldman’s warlord who wants it to consolidate his power. The Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents) have always openly embraced stylization in their movies and that works well here; every image has a scorched look and this world feels destroyed in a way that other films don’t. (The Road, out the previous year, didn’t even try for this.) Desaturation here feels like an artistic choice rather than default, and it allows for some memorable sequences like a swordfight in silhouette.
Eli runs a straightforward quest narrative, acted straightforwardly and well, especially by Oldman, Washington, and the always-welcome Ray Stevenson; there are moments when the characters and the story evoke Kurosawa’s best works. Washington in particular has some of Seven Samurai‘s Takashi Shimura’s rock-steadiness. (Steadiness is a plot point here, one I won’t spoil.) Jennifer Beals and Mila Kunis don’t do as well, largely because their characters are underwritten. The underlying theme, as Scott Tobias has noted, isn’t so much the power of Christianity or even the power of religion, it’s the power of words; I’d add that it’s specifically about the power of the written word over speech. Eli plays well and fairly with this idea all through the film, with Oldman not so much a hellfire preacher as a wizard who’s lost his book of spells. The story would work just as well with the Koran, the Declaration of Independence, King Lear, or the Republic, something made clear at the end. It’s a fascinating topic, so why not get a decent action movie out of it?
The Book of Eli airs on TNT at 7pm Eastern and Pacific Saturday night.