Denzel Washington chews the post-apocalyptic scenery in the Hughes brothers’ (From Hell) gritty thriller The Book of Eli. Thirty years after a devastating war has razed America and ruined the atmosphere, Eli (Washington) walks west, a lone journeyman on a sacred mission. Violent vagrants and would be hijackers are dispatched with a ruthless efficiency as Eli steadfastly walks onward, impassive behind dark sunglasses.
That is until he stops at a ramshackle town to barter for goods, where he comes up against the local muscle and thus draws the attention of Carnegie (Gary Oldman) the town’s obsessive, imperialistic leader. Having sent out roving gangs of illiterate brutes to collect any and all books they come across, Carnegie’s malevolent interest is soon piqued by Eli erudition. Inviting Eli to be his guest for the evening, Carnegie sends in a spy in the form of courtesan Solara (Mila Kunis), who defies her master and escapes with Eli to join his solemn quest.
If this is starting to sound a lot like Mad Max meets Deadwood, then you’re not far off. The film almost revels in its references, with Eli’s shadowy sword fighting scenes given extra reflexivity when you consider the Hughes brothers have also set their sights on an adaptation of dystopic Japanese manga comic Akira. Similarly, cinematographer Don Burgess (Forrest Gump) delights in the film’s western roots; capturing the climactic gun battle in a remarkable, roving steadycam shot that tracks between the dueling parties with an extra-diegetic dynamism.
But if only as much precision had been put into the film’s script as its cinematography and crisp, sepia colour grading. These compelling visuals, and the undeniable screen presence of both Washington and Oldman are almost entirely wasted on Gary Whitta’s lackluster screenplay. Laborious and predictable, The Book of Eli suffers under the weight of its own attempted solemnity. Not even cameos by Michael Gambon, Tom Waits or Malcolm McDowell can revive a film so earnestly appealing to its worthiness.
It is especially unfortunate that this film comes so close on the heels of John Hillcoat’s assured adaptation of The Road, as the thematic sophistication of Cormac McCarthy’s writing puts Eli in violently sharp relief. Despite the fact that the apocalypse seems to be all the cinematic rage right now, The Book of Eli has little more than good looks to add to the discussion. And although these images play well on the silver screen, audiences would better off revisiting The Road, or Children of Men (with its superior steadycam shot) instead.
Published by Street Press Australia
Australian release date: 15 April 2010