In “The Book of Eli,” 30 winters have passed since the “big blast.” No one really explains what caused that flash of light that left many blinded, burned or dead, but judging from the charred remains it left behind, we might assume it was an atomic or nuclear attack. In this post-apocalyptic world, we follow the solitary, titular character (Denzel Washington) on his cross-country, westbound trek. Wearing sunglasses and carrying a backpack, he spends much of his time hunting for food – a hairless cat and a vulture end up on his plate – and water. When he rests, he reads from an old, leather bound book that he keeps wrapped in clean, white linen. This book, as I’m sure most people know, is the King James Version of “The Bible.” Eli knows the contents of this book so well, that he can be heard reciting passages from “Genesis” and “The Book of Psalms,” or more specifically Psalm 23, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not be in want …” (Fans of “Lost” will know that season 2, episode 10 is named for this psalm.) Before you think he’s a religious fanatic, he also quotes from “Greystone Chapel” – “it’s a flower of light in a field of darkness” – which is on the “Johnny Cash At Folsom Prison (Live)” album, and listens to Al Green’s “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” on his surprisingly still operational iPod.
As he wanders through the dusty and barren landscape, he frequently comes across other survivors, most of whom are rejects from “The Road Warrior.” Eli takes care of these rapists, cannibals and thieves with a swift slice and dice from his sharpened-within-an-inch-of-its-life machete. Needing some water and an iPod recharge, he stops in a frontier town that is overseen by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a bookish pimp, saloon owner and gang boss. (He’s Al Swearengen lite.) Carnegie commands a group of illiterate, motorcycle-riding halfwits that he sends out for one thing and one thing only – the Book. Which one might that be? Why the one Eli has been toting across the country, of course. What purpose would a guy like Carnegie have for the Bible? Subscribing to the Marxist party line, he believes that it can be used to control the masses. I just need the right words, he tells Eli. You might wonder what makes the Bible so precious an object. For one thing, we are told that before the big flash, all copies of it were rounded up and destroyed. Eli probably has the only copy. Why it matters to Eli? For him, it contains a valuable moral code that can be used to rebuild humanity. He knows this because, like a prophet out of the Hebrew Bible, he has been called upon to fulfill a kind of destiny.
From the trailer, it looks like “The Book of Eli” might be some kick ass kind of film. After all, its tagline is “some will kill to have it. He will kill to protect it.” But even though there are a few fight sequences – and pretty bloody ones at that – it isn’t one blow out after another. This isn’t a Steven Seagel vehicle. It’s a post-apocalyptic western with some ninja flourishes. And it’s fairly heavy on the religious overtones. Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is up to the discretion of the viewer.
When I first read some news articles about the film – ones that called it religious – I was a bit nervous. I don’t like preachy or overtly evangelical films from any religious tradition. Instead, I prefer something more subtle. In spite of my hesitation, I attended an early screening and found that it was better than I thought it would be. That doesn’t mean much, though. I went in with very low expectations. What’s to like? What’s not? The main reason I took a chance on “The Book of Eli” was for its direction. Albert and Allen Hughes impressed the hell out of me with “From Hell,” a dark, gritty and ultra-violent take on the Jack the Ripper murders. That 2001 film alone made me an instant fan. They continue their vision in “Eli,” although their latest effort seems to be more hopeful. Even though screenwriter Gary Whitta borrows liberally from a variety of films – this is “Road Warrior” meets “Ghost Dog” intersecting with “Deadwood” – he manages to deliver an true “didn’t see that coming” twist ending. I don’t get sucker punched very often, but this one had me slapping my head and uttering a quiet “D’oh.” I didn’t like the film enough to see it again, but I imagine if you do, a lot more “ah ha” moments will come from repeated viewings. The runner-up reason for my seeing “Eli” was the presence of Oldman, who goes hysterical a few predictable times.
If I sat through “Eli” again, my reason would be to see Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Stevenson is known to “Rome” fans for his role as Titus Pullo. The Irish actor also played Frank Castle in “Punisher: War Zone,” a film I avoided but will now add to my Netflix queue; and Murlaugh in last year’s “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant.” In “Eli,” he plays Redridge, Carnegie’s right hand man. He’s a seriously hard man, but he’s attractive in the way that only sociopaths can be. Gambon and de la Tour play George and Martha, an elderly couple who live in a big white house that’s been booby trapped against invaders. However, once a guest gets inside, he or she is treated to a not-so tasty cup of tea and some music, such as Anita Day’s “Ring My Bell” on the old Victrola, and a tour of the garden where the bodies have been buried. (Don’t ask. Just know that if you encounter a person whose hand is shaking, you don’t partake of any offered meat products.) George and Martha, in all of their survivalist and gun-toting ways, are the No. 1 reason to see “Eli.”
As for why I wasn’t overly enamored with the film? I can’t really put my finger on it. I wasn’t offended, bored or irritated by it, so who can say? Well, maybe, just maybe, it had to do with the main character being a righteous man who failed to follow the sixth commandment of “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” Also, for some reason it bugged me that a guy who knew the Bible backwards and forwards failed to adhere to its dietary laws. As listed in Deuteronomy 14:3-20, it clearly states that one should not eat “the carrion vulture.” Although cats aren’t mentioned specifically, scavengers and predators, are forbidden because they are unclean animals. For those who would argue the toss about this – just before Eli shot the cat with an arrow and cooked it on a spit, it was getting ready to dine on a human corpse. Whether or not this character would adhere to dietary laws – he’s undoubtedly Christian not Jewish – is beside the point. The food choices themselves seemed particularly odd. Was Whitta making some point that I failed to get? While Eli is eating the cat, a mouse comes out from a hole in the wall, and Eli offers it a slice of the roasted predator. Maybe this was some visual take on the “meek shall inherit the earth” concept; or maybe I’m just over thinking it all.
In summary, “The Book of Eli” is an aesthetically pleasing film that should appeal to fans of Washington, post-apocalyptic films and Westerns. I liked it, didn’t love it.
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