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Everybody's talking about what happens after the apocalypse these days. "The Book of Eli" is sort of the boiling point of this science-fiction concept, a combination of last year's "The Road" and George Miller's "The Road Warrior." America is a post-apocalyptic wasteland and Denzel Washington is the only self-sufficient badass. So originality is not exactly "Eli's" calling card, but it clearly establishes its ruinous world and the Hughes brothers ("From Hell") take good care of its characters while supplying top-notch action.
Washington stars as our stolid protagonist, Eli, journeying westward with his canteen, a large machete, a couple guns and a special leather-bound book. He lives on an Earth that was fried 30 years before by the sun because of a war that ripped a hole through the ozone layer. Sun-goggled bikers run amok pillaging, killing and raping passers-by, yet Eli is morally sound and focused on keeping his book safe no matter what so he can deliver it somewhere out west.
Although written by a first-time screenwriter and former PC Gamer editor, Gary Whitta, "Eli" impressively creates its world between the sunglasses/goggles due to the sun's power, trading of goods because money's obsolete and the constant examining of hands to determine if someone is jittery from eating too much human flesh. Whitta also places Eli squarely in the story. He's a good but dangerous man who's not afraid to kill, and as he sits idly by as a couple gets attacked, it's abundantly clear that this is a world where compassion is secondary to survival and self-interest.
Where the plot comes in is "Eli's" weak link. It doesn't try too hard to hide just what exactly the book is and that sort of dissolves some of the film's mystique. The plot is essentially Eli wants to protect it and take it west and he has a run in with Carnegie (Gary Oldman), an older man who runs a small town and desires it for selfish power-related reasons. Along the way, anyone who threatens to lay a hand on Eli gets sliced up or shot. In the two or three fight scenes where he takes down numerous guys at once, you can't help but wonder why after he kills the first few guys, the others don't run the hell away, especially considering people are otherwise in self-preservation mode living in a wasteland (and they know nothing of the book).
The Hughes brothers make those scenes worthwhile, however. There's a style and grace to their action scenes -- they create a sort of a moving tableau in some scenes and execute a wide range of tempos in the action sequences to make them more intense. When Carnegie's men encounter Eli and the young woman (Mila Kunis) that he inspires who follows him at the home of some old folks (cameos by famous Brits Frances De La Tour and Michael Gambon), they place the camera in the middle of the action and sweep along with the gunfire (part- digitally) from one side to the other. It's very cool and is an example of one way the Hugheses keep the focus away from the plot's shaky skeleton. I only have beef with their excessive slow-motion walking-toward-the-camera shots and showing a bit too much of the cloudy green-gray sky.
Some people are going to be more surprised and impressed with the film's big reveal than others, but anyone with a love of action and that post-apocalyptic context will find something to make "Eli" a worthwhile watch regardless of plot weakness. Washington is slightly under-utilized but he's an ideal fit. He brings an intensity in his demeanor that makes him an intriguing character and the film does a good job of making his character more central than anything else.
Release Date: 15 January 2010 (USA)
Genre: Action | Adventure | Drama | Sci-Fi | Thriller | Western
Runtime: 117 min
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital