Most New Year films are like the $5 DVD bins you find at Walmart: Old and crappy, but would cost more to store in a warehouse than it would to sell for the cost of a footlong sub. However, the release of films like The Book of Eli and Daybreakers, before the blockbuster juggernauts awake from their 8 month hibernation, is changing regularly scheduled programming. After reading my review of Daybreakers, you know it’s not the best vampire film ever, but it’s a lot of fun. The Book of Eli is playing at the same kid’s table.
Like so many post-apocalyptic flicks these days, The Book of Eli takes place on the road, as Eli (Denzel Washington) walks the blacktop of the southwestern U.S., foiling traps by Mad Max extras (sans vehicles) and revealing his zen and the art of kicking ass. Eli stops at a town to charge a battery, more goons hassle him, and they promptly receiving more kicking of the rear end. When the Mayor, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), looks down at the bar and sees Eli in a pile of former thugs, Carnegie pulls out the charm to persuade Eli into staying as security detail. Eli declines, saying he has business out West. When Carnegie finds out Eli can not only read, but is carrying the book he’s been killing to locate, further kicking of the ass ensues.
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes (whose last flick was From Hell 2001), this is an okay film that just misses average expectations. Though Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman aren’t at their peak in this film, they’re good guys for the job: Denzel has proven his ability to don “Strong Silent Type” roles since Man on Fire and Oldman has been rocking the bad guy roles since the 90’s with Dracula, The Fifth Element, and Leon: The Professional (highly recommend that one). Hell, even Mila Kunis as Eli’s companion, Solara, doesn’t do a bad job.
The film’s weaknesses really rest in the directing and the writing. Ever since Alfonso Cuaron blew us away with Children of Men in 2006, long takes have come into vogue, with McG copying the style in Terminator Salvation (2009) and The Hughes Bros. doing the same in The Book of Eli: A shootout occurs and the camera starts inside the house, goes out to Carnegie and his men firing, then moves back toward the house, through the bullet holes, and beside Solara and Eli.
There were a few scenes like this, which failed as they called attention to themselves. In Children of Men you forgot that scenes played out in long takes because you were too involved with the story. In The Book of Eli, however, these scenes (and other slow-motion moments) remind me of a George Carlin comment on playing jazz music: It’s not enough to know what notes need to be played, but why the notes need to be played. They’re obviously pulling stylistic elements from Cuaron, but they don’t know why Cuaron did it that way, only that it looked cool. Given the film’s push for dramatic realism, these hyper aesthetic moments undermine the directors’ goal.
And the writing. What is it with endings these days? Both The Road and Daybreakers had bad endings that could have been much cleaner given very simple changes. The Book of Eli gets tossed in the same boat here, but the problems are a more complex: There isn’t merely a little trimming to be performed (The Road) or an extra quick scene or two to leave a realistic vibe (Daybreakers). What The Book of Eli’s conclusion really needs is to amputate the didactic heavy-handedness that shows up like a drunk uncle at Christmas dinner and spoils the fun.
Finally, the makeup and special effects performed admirably. My theory of CGI working better in the dark is demonstrated here, as backgrounds of devastated wasteland did not stand out nearly as much as a boat ride in the sunshine.
The little touches in the film were cool, like a hijacker wearing goggles with a bullet hole through one lens (implying the original owner is dead, possibly at the hands of the new owner, and that scavenging is a part of life) and a beat up poster for A Boy and His Dog in the background of Eli’s room while staying in town (Dog was a major influence for Mad Max, and hence, all post-apocalyptic films since). Finally, the random appearance of Albus Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) as the POSSIBLE, MINOR SPOILER second half of a friendly, elderly cannibal couple was worth a few laughs for sheer randomness. A whole film should be dedicated to those folks. POSSIBLE SPOILER OVER Keep your eyes peeled for a few other cameos.
In the end, the film is okay, starting strong, but wimping out as the final bell rings. Daybreakers did a better job maintaining that world’s credibility while having some fun, and The Road is the closest we’ll get to gritty-realism in post-apocalyptic films for a while. The Book of Eli plays in both courts, the fun and the serious, but doesn’t completely deliver the goods as well as its better cousins.
2 1/2 out of 5
The Book of Eli actually plays out like a Western than the gritty survival structures of post-apocalypse films: random stranger with badassness floats into town, attracts trouble, kills trouble, leaves town for vague mission.
Mad Max, A Boy and His Dog, Carriers, The Road, Children of Men, High Noon, any Sergio Leone flick