The Book of Eli (* 1/2)

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

It’s the end of the world, as we know it…

Road Warrior, Waterworld, The Postman, The Road, I Am Legend… Post-apocalypse films are a dime a dozen, so what makes The Book of Eli so different? Not much, except an evangelical subplot that is not strong enough to be this film’s savior.

To quote the protagonist, Eli (Denzel Washington), “It’s been 30 years since the flash.” For three decades this sullen, violent anti-hero has been “heading west,” with a prized possession in his knapsack. The streets of the U.S. are desolate, except for other survivors/vultures who rape, pillage and search for precious commodities like water.

Whenever roving marauders attack Eli, he defends himself with knives, swords and guns, killing and maiming with a precision that is remarkable – unless you’re in a far-fetched movie. A leader of a gang, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), covets the book Eli hoards. He sends his adopted daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) to seduce the interloper, to no avail. Eli’s mission is to save his prized bible for a greater good, and he’ll fend off the unyielding attacks. Can he survive? Can he save a vestige of humanity?

Gary Whitta, a videogame writer, entertainment journalist and comic book author, has become a screenwriter and nothing in his background has enabled him to imbue this formulaic screenplay with depth of emotion or thought. His characters are clichÈ, leaving his fairly talented cast with little to work with. Scenes drag and characters have far too much dialogue for a film that is essentially an action/thriller. No back-story explains why Eli has almost super-human fighting skills or why he is so saintly. The script has one unique plotline, as the third act unfolds, the story focuses on the power of religion in developing moralistic societies. But, what should be a very spiritual, inspirational moment, as written and directed, feels trite.

Allen and Albert Hughes, aka The Hughes Brothers, built their reputation at age 20 on their debut film Menace II Society, a daring interpretation of inner-city life that struck a chord. Their follow-up film, Dead Presidents, had equal swagger. Subsequent movies, From Hell (a Jack the Ripper biopic that bombed) and their controversial documentary American Pimp (a one-sided look at the world’s second oldest profession) were almost career buzz killers. Their direction on “Eli,” though not a total embarrassment, does not enhance their reputation. Elongated, unimaginatively staged scenes crash into each other. Action sequences lack innovation. Bullets fly through the air like rain, but Eli is rarely hit, while his shots find their targets; is that because the villains have bad depth of perception, or what?

Denzel Washington is apt at making molehill characters into mountains, but his enigmatic portrayal of Eli is two-dimensional; he’s either ultra violent or devotedly religious with few shades in-between. Gary Oldman, a consummate actor who can make an antagonist a fiendish, memorable villain (Hannibal), never gets under the skin of his Carnegie character. Mila Kunis, as the twentsomething waif who tags along with Eli, seems aimless, like Lindsay Lohan set adrift at a nightclub.

Don Burgess’ cinematography never shines. Production designer Gae Buckley gives the film a dull taupe look. Sharen Davis, who did wonders with the costumes for Ray and Dreamgirls, is in part sabotaged by the work of the make-up artist and hairstylist. Dingy “Urban Outfitter” clothes, smudged faces and matted hair make the supporting cast look like fugitives from the Michael Jackson video Thriller who were recruited from Hollywood and Vine.

January is regarded as the graveyard month for bad-to-mediocre films that could not compete with summer blockbusters or the autumn line-up of OscarÆ contenders. The Book of Eli, compared to other post-apocalypse films, is not necessarily D.O.A., but it’s got one foot in the grave.