It’s been nine years since the Albert and Allen Hughes released a film, the effortlessly stylish From Hell, one of the best — and most overlooked — horror films to come out last decade. But now, after such a long hiatus, the question arises as to whether their latest outing, The Book of Eli, was worth the wait. And I can say unequivocally, for those who are fans of the kind assured, intelligent, sleek, bold filmmaking on display here, that the answer is an incontrovertible yes.
It’s a bit of a shame that the film has come on the heels of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009), with its dire, sullen look at surviving in a post-apocalyptic landscape, which didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Don’t be fooled, however — both films are very different approaches to a well-worn genre. Sure, both The Road and The Book of Eli deal with characters roaming through the remains of a dreary, collapsed civilization, skirting cannibals and gangs of bandits. Where the two films diverge is in their approach. Where The Road is a simple, sparse story of survival, The Book of Eli is a bit more ambitious in scope, all the while being more entertaining (and if there’s ever any question, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour showing up as gun-toting cannibals should put a rest to that).
Stripped away of everything, Eli is an action movie — a very bloody one at that — with a large debt paid to Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns. Denzel Washington plays Eli, a lone traveler (and movie badass) who’s heading West through the barren, destroyed, deadly remains of America, carrying the country’s last remaining Bible in his backpack. It seems that whatever war caused all this destruction was ultimately blamed on religion, causing the destruction of almost every Bible by mobs of angry survivors. Since this is presumably the last Bible around, it makes it a hot commodity for Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a town boss — and one of the few remaining literate people around who remember a time before the war — who sees the book as “a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and the desperate.”
The bulk of the plot revolves around Carnegie and his gang attempting to capture Eli and his book, but there’s more to the movie than this. Some critics have criticized the film for its religious bent (never mind that Albert Hughes is a professed atheist), with one review going as far as to condemn Eli for its “fundamentalist message,” but this view is shortsighted. Yes, the film is about religion, but more about the upsides found in its purest form — and figuring out what religion means to you, not what others say it is — as opposed to its dangers when perverted. In this sense the movie is a much more persuasive, effective promotion of religion than, for instance, the simplistic proselytizing of Fireproof (2008), while never being preachy.
It certainly helps that the Hughes Brothers are the ones saying it, since they manage to coat the film in effortless style. While it’s a relief to find directors who can shoot not only cohesive, but creative, action scenes (one of which would fit in quite well with Alfonso Cuaron’s 2006 Children of Men) that never skimp on the action, the film is filled with fits of snazzy, genuine filmmaking that always feel right, squeezing the most possible out of the film’s sepia-toned hues.
There’s an astonishing level of attention to the most minute details. At first glance, the film’s big (and very clever) twist appears to cause the entire movie to unravel. That is until closer examination shows it’s been very subtly set up from the onset, while also fitting snugly within the film’s internal logic (not to mention — without spoiling anything — a more universal movie logic that the basic idea shares with at least a couple of films). At the same time, the Hughes Brothers and first-time screenwriter Gary Whitta are all smart enough to realize that the twist isn’t the point of the movie, just a nice adornment. It’s a final touch to this cinematic rarity — a slick, intelligent film made by people with a sense of vision, but with enough brains to never forget it’s a movie that’s here to entertain. Rated R for some brutal violence and language.