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The Book Of Eli (2010, USA)

02/03/2011

Directors: Albert Hughes, Allen Hughes       Starring: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman

I’ll be honest, I was in no hurry to watch this post apocalyptic action/adventure film. Having heard largely negative reports I thought I’d let it pass me by and maybe catch it on TV sometime. It was only when a couple of weeks ago a colleague put forward a hypothesis that it was a good film after all and offered to lend it to me to prove the point that I reconsidered. She made quite a good case and I’ve been pleasantly surprised before when my expectations were low. In fact, its often when you are expecting the worst from a movie that you get a real revelation upon viewing it. So which was it to be for the Hughes brothers? Redemption or damnation? I’d say it’s probably a little bit of both.

Denzel Washington is Eli, a lone traveller walking the barren highways of a post apocalyptic America bearing what would appear to be the only surviving copy of the Bible. On his pilgrimage Eli falls foul of Carnegie (Oldman), the kingpin in a desert town who sends his henchmen out in search of a copy of the Bible in the belief that possessing one will give him the power to build an empire and control what’s left of the world’s population. Conflict ensues.

The whole thing plays out like a tribute to just about every Western ever made with a hint of Mad Max and Farenheit 451 thrown in for good measure. The idea that after a presumed nuclear holocaust America would regress to a frontier style existence is a logical one and it’s pulled off competently. The washed out, almost sepia colour scheme adds to this effect and gives the film a nice, coherent feel. The bandits and bushwhackers you would expect to find waylaying the hero in a Leone or Eastwood film are replaced here with cannibals and mercenaries, a frankly insignificant distinction that doesn’t add or substract to the proceedings. The fight scenes are good, especially the first time we see Eli let loose, silhouetted against the skyline. The Hughes brothers obvious love of graphic novels makes itself known throughout, with comic book styling both visually and dynamically. It does at times just feel derivative though which is a shame, but I suppose understandable when dealing in genres where the ground has been tread so iconically before.

Apart from the obvious expectations that the two leads bring to the party, there is a startlingly unusual supporting cast. Michael Gambon, Frances De La Tour, Tom Waits and Malcolm McDowell all feature, although admittedly in relatively minor roles. Again this is a shame, the sequence with Gambon & De La Tour certainly standing out as being somewhat under developed and ripe with unrealised potential. Oldman is a bit bewildering here, an actor who has proved in the past his innate talent for playing the bad guy he instead has opted for a prolonged Jack Nicholson impersonation. It’s not that it’s a bad performance per se, it just feels like somebody else’s performance.  

It’s impossible to talk about the film without referring to its Biblical theme. Pitting individual spirituality against what it seems to regard as the dangers of organised religion, the implication is that faith in the right hands can be a force for strength and good but when appropriated by people with a darker agenda it can become a powerful force for evil. It’s a nice touch, if a little heavy handed at times.

In the end then, I was pleasantly surprised by The Book Of Eli. I don’t think it rises much above average, enjoyable as it is its multitude of minor flaws drags it down a little bit. Everything just seems a little bit under-realised and a lot of the talent on screen is never really exploited to its full potential which is a tragic missed opportunity. There are definitely worse ways to kill a couple of hours though and I didn’t feel cheated by what is a competent and watchable film.

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