Apocalypse movies have been all the rage of late, and why not? Maybe people like to see a picture of what the world we live in is heading for -- possibly that is -- but there's clearly a formula developing as to how to make apocalyptic movies. There's been a recent string of these movies including 2012 and The Road, and most recently The Book of Eli which opened in theaters yesterday.
A combination of Mad Max, The Road and Fahrenheit 451, The Book of Eli appeals to me in the same way many westerns do. The setting is the west in the U.S. some 30 years after 'the flash,' some cataclysmic incident where the ozone layer was torn open and the Earth began to burn. It wasn't a world destroyer though as many people survived, some forming into smaller groups and building communities and towns that dot the country. During the incident -- it's never spelled out although religion is hinted at for being a cause -- a revolution resulted where books, all books, burned. Now a quarter century later the world tries to build up again.
One of those people who survived the blast is Eli (Denzel Washington), a man in his late 30s, maybe early 40s who travels across the country, all the while heading west. In his possession is a leather-bound King James Bible, possibly the last one in existence with all the book burnings. He protects it closely, ready to dispatch anyone who tries to take it from him as he crosses the bleak, vacant stretches of land. One day, he walks into a small town run by a man known only as Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who rules the area because he controls the all-important water supply. In trying to gain as much power as possible, Carnegie has been looking for years for a copy of the Bible and through a young woman, Solara (Mila Kunis), working in his bar finds out that Eli has one. Carnegie wants it and will spare nothing or no one to get it, but Eli has no plans of giving it up easily.
Making their first movie in nine years, the Hughes brothers, Albert and Allen, turn in a strong movie in their return to the big screen. Working with cinematographer/director of photography Don Burgess, the twin brother directing combo create an intensely visual movie full of washed out colors -- almost like sepia -- that give everything a tired, beaten down by the world look. As Eli treks cross-country, it feels like the viewer is in this desert wasteland with him. The desert presents all sorts of dangers like hijackers (Eli's handling of an ambush is a great introductory sequence, one of the better recent action scenes) and an almost complete lack of water.
The action scenes are inspired as Eli equipped with a razor-sharp machete, pistol and pump-action shotgun deals with hijackers, thugs, and Carnegie's men. Unlike many action movies, these scenes are shown in one continuous shot without a cut. So instead of a flurry of quick-cut individual shots, we get one fast yet clear shot of Eli dispatching his attackers. As if those weren't cool enough, there's also a gunfight straight out of the old west as Eli turns to his pistol to get him out of a sticky situation with Carnegie and his demands.
This builds and builds to a phenomenal final 30 minutes. The first 90 are strong and highly enjoyable on their own, but the last half hour takes it to another level. There's one major twist -- think Sixth Sense -- that is hinted at throughout the movie but is handled so well it would be hard to pick up on an initial viewing. I didn't see it coming at all and am still coming around with it. But on a bigger level (no twist involved) it's a very emotional ending, surprisingly so since this movie is being marketed as an action flick, that goes back to what all apocalypse movies have...there will always be a remnant, a group to carry on where others have fallen. This ending features a great cameo from Malcolm McDowell, quite a departure from his Clockwork Orange part.
Starring as a man of few words on a mission, Denzel Washington is phenomenal as Eli. With little in the way of dialogue and even less background, Washington brings Eli to life, a character you find yourself rooting for because somehow you know he is in the right and doing something incredibly worthwhile. When Eli does speak, Washington shows off the old acting chops, especially when he explains how the book came into his possession. An actor more than a movie star, it's always nice to see Washington get to do some heavy-duty fight scenes too. Oldman gets back to his bad guy roots as Carnegie, and Kunis continues a string of movies where she's shown she is more than just shrill Jackie Burkhart. Also worth looking out for is Ray Stevenson as Redridge, Carnegie's right hand man, Jennifer Beals as Claudia, Solara's blind mother, Tom Waits as a suspicious storekeeper, and Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as an old married couple Eli meets on the road.
Not overly religious and not quite a straight action movie, The Book of Eli has a little bit of everything for the audience. Great casting, especially Washington and Oldman, help boost this apocalyptic story into something more than just its spare parts. As for the twist, it is one of those revelations that make you want to go back and watch the movie again, see if you can spot all the clues as they're presented. In this movie's case, I look forward to seeing it again because it certainly fooled me the first time around.
The Book of Eli <----trailer (2010): *** 1/2 /****