“For out of the ground we were taken, for the dust we are… and to the dust we shall return.”
*This review may contain spoilers*
The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic action film directed by the Hughes Brothers (From Hell) and stars Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman and Mila Kunis. The film centers around a lone wanderer called Eli, who has been travelling west for 30 years to deliver the last copy of a mysterious book to safety.
The Book of Eli (BoE) is such a refreshing take to a somewhat stale genre, that incorporates some incredible action choreography with a range of interesting characters in a gritty and stylised world. With Denzel at the helm as our protagonist, there wasn’t much that could go wrong in the sense of style. Substance was at risk given that Eli spends the majority of the first act alone, but the story navigates around this by having our hero dance in joy over new shoes, sing to upbeat songs on his iPod and barter with KFC wet wipes at a parts store. Eli is low-key funny and has an earnest screen presence, but initially serves to build mystery around his beloved book and speak cool lines before expertly slaying multiple hunters. The first action sequence is an exciting introduction to the world in which this is set, with shock violence and great lighting that has us watch Eli efficiently dispatch several stinky scoundrels in Kill Bill silhouette style. At first this can be viewed as an artistic choice, but a shocking revelation at the end of the film gives a new level of bad-assery to Eli as he takes to the dark as a strategic advantage.
Most of the lead characters are given a rounded human element to them, showing both the good and bad even in Oldman’s nasty dictator and our lead antagonist, Carnegie. After being given maybe the last bottle of shampoo in the world from one of his goons, Carnegie passionately washes his partners hair with it in the following scene, initially providing a likable quality to a character you will soon despise. The opposite can be said for Eli, as we are instantly shown him killing a dangerously scrawny cat for food (a great visual representation of his desperation), only to share it with a small mouse. The screenplay tries to firmly ground these characters, it wants us to relate and believe that these are real people and it works. To his own despair, Eli isn’t all good and Oldman isn’t the moustache twirling villain we see in most action movies today. Solara (Kunis) is really only in this movie to develop Eli and it is shame that we couldn’t see more from her. That being said, all of the dialogue scenes between Eli and Solara contains some development for both characters and her naivety acts as a “Watson” characteristic for the audience, asking questions we might ask to gain a better understanding of Eli’s motivations. She does eventually grow into this dangerous world and infrequently slows the pace of the story, so we end up rooting for her as much as we do Eli by the third act.
The actions sequences are competently choreographed, but not to the point it feels like a dance. Eli is efficient, brutal and comes across with a super-hero level of immunity. Even the characters in the movie believe him to be indestructible, giving Eli a very dangerous opposite to his mild-mannered personality. The famous bar fight starts over Eli shooing a cat off the bar, slowly building intensity, only to erupt in a savage battle that propels this character to an almost epic level of action hero status. The final confrontation between our leads is crafted as one-shots that keeps you hanging in a level of suspense, as the to-and-fro between these characters progressively raises the peril for both sides. Possibly after the highest point of adrenaline in this film, comes a quiet and emotional scene that is effectively sold by Denzel and Oldman. To see Eli’s untouchable persona stripped away, only for his tenacious faith struggle to stand him back up is heart-breaking and the most powerful scene in the film. On a side note, as a huge Harry Potter fan, it was so much fun to see Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as Martha and George, the charming old couple living in their dainty house in what seems cut off from the rest of the apocalypse. The moment takes an abrupt and sinister turn, only for the audience to be left wanting more from this bizarre cannibal duo. Such an enjoyable scene that had me rewind the DVD to watch a second time around!
BoE takes its religious components and runs with it, rather than watering it down for mainstream audiences. The dialogue doesn’t forcefully throw doctrine in the viewers face, but instead uses Eli’s warm personality to explore his own faith and motivations. Following the dual nature of our characters, BoE extends this idea to the book itself, in which Carnegie gives a great monologue detailing his autocratic intentions for the book. Action movies particularly suffer greatly with poorly developed MacGuffins (the Mother Box in Justice League, Crystal Skull in Indiana Jones, the diamond in almost any movie containing a diamond!), but BoE treats the book almost as a character: we genuinely care for its safety and already understand its power if we draw from our own reality.
The entire film is shot with a grainy, brown filter devoid of most color, which makes it hard to see some of the backdrops during internal scenes. BoE has some fantastic make-up, costumes and set design that I couldn’t appreciate in full, particularly in the bar fight scene. During the final sequences, our heroes reach their destination and the scenes brighten to fill with color, giving a dream-like state that has viewers circulating multiple theories as to whether this is genuinely happening or not. Given that Eli has been wandering for 30 years to find the “right place” for his book, everything could seem too agreeable to be true, particularly as we were told earlier that there is nothing out west. After one of cinemas most inconceivable plot twists, a debatable ending glues Book of Eli to the forefront of your mind long after the credits roll, as well as providing subtle nods throughout the film for great re-watchability.
It doesn’t quite transcend the action genre but boasts some fantastic action scenes, powerful acting and some believable motivations. The second act feels fluffed out for substance, but this is overshadowed by a steady build of intrigue and an ending that still has me pulling my hair out in disbelief. I give Book of Eli an 8/10!
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