Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Book of Eli

If Cormac McCarthy wrote manga, it might look a little like this.

The Book of Eli is the sort of film that shouldn't be a big-budget blockbuster. Not because it is a bad film, but because it seems too odd for a studio to spend $80 million making it. It's an apocalyptic pseudo-Western in which Denzel Washington plays a Johnny Cash-quoting Man With No Name - though he does have a name. It's Eli - who walks through the wasteland, fighting off bandits and trying to protect his book, which a maniacal bibliophile (Gary Oldman) sorely wants because he thinks that it will give him tremendous power, which in turn is an analogy about the power of words and faith. It's an odd duck, and no mistake.

Denzel Washington is as watchable as ever and has this kind of gruff, likable character type down to a fine art now, giving Eli a mixture of gravitas and affability that a film with this scope and grit sorely needs as a window into the reality of the film. Gary Oldman, as the villain of the film, is riotously game and over-the-top, delighting in the opportunity to chew every piece of available scenery. His performance reminded me very much of the Gary Oldman of yesteryear, the consummate character actor who never turned down the chance to be a drugged-up corrupt cop, evil galactic businessman, or faux-Rasta drug dealer. I felt a pleasant wave of nostalgia wash over me at getting to see Gary Oldman be bouncing-off-the-walls insane again.

The Hughes Brothers - directing for the first time in nine years - give the film the dusty, autumnal look that so often characterises these sort of films but manage to find a harsh beauty in the barren landscapes and remnants of civilisation. The action scenes that litter the film have style and energy, and there's an emphasis on continuity to the fights that I found quite refreshing. Rather than the frantic cutcutcutcutcutcut editing favoured by most modern action films, The Hughes Brothers stage fights, such as an opening scene in which Denzel dispatches a group of bandits silhouetted under a bridge, in as few takes as possible, allowing the choreography to shine. This idea is taken to a slightly silly extreme when, during a shoot out at an old house, the camera moves between the two sides and around the house in a seemingly unbroken take which is clearly several stitched together, but I applaud the ethos behind it.

The most interesting aspect of the film is the role of the Book itself, which - and don't read beyond here if you don't want to know what it is - is a copy The Bible. Now, the idea that a Bible is the key to humanity's salvation suggests that the film is going to be a preachy Christian tract, and if this were a Kirk Cameron film it would be, but Eli's book is representative of knowledge, rather than Christian beliefs. Furthermore, the film makes it clear that words are not as important as the people who use them; Eli thinks they could provide people with hope and comfort in a time of crisis, whilst Carnegie sees them as a weapon that would allow him to control people by exploiting their beliefs. It's almost like a science fiction reimagining of The Reformation, with Denzel Washington as Martin Luther.

Unfortunately, since The Book of Eli is a blockbuster, the film winds up conforming to type, to whit, it is littered with fight scenes that don't serve any purpose. Similarly, Mila Kunis as a sort of (But not really.) love interest for Eli serves no real purpose other than to move the plot along. Kunis' presence in the film in general is quite distracting. She much too glamourous exist in the same world as Eli and Carnegie. With her sunglasses and fur-lined coat, contrasted with the unforgiving backdrop of the film, leaves Kunis looking like Angelina Jolie trying to adopt some cannibal children.

Whilst flawed, The Book of Eli is interesting and, when you get past its slightly too serious tone, it is a lot of fun. By no means a great film, and certainly no great shakes when compared to more consistent post-apocalyptic films, it's still an engaging watch. I wouldn't carry a copy of it across a barren wasteland, but I'd happily watch it again.