Denzel Washington is so cool, so beloved as an actor, that he could make Mike Vick a likeable hero in Bad Newz Kennels: My Story. He managed to turn a vicious, homicidal maniac in Frank Lucas into something likeable in American Gangster, so it’s not shocking that the Hughes Brothers needed him to lend some dramatic credence to The Book of Eli. Without him, the film is all flash and no substance; with him there’s a dramatic gravity that can only exist with him in it.
Eli (Washington) has been charged with a mission from God. He is to transport a King James Bible to the west in post apocalyptic America. Armed to the teeth, Eli is a warrior-monk type who will defend the book with his life. And a wicked machete that he wields with brutal efficiency. When he wanders into the fiefdom of Carnegie (Gary Oldman), he finds his wandering in the brutal wastelands has prepared him for this very moment. Carnegie needs the book to expand his empire, harnessing its power for his own purpose.
And for a pair of directors that haven’t made a feature length film in some time, since From Hell with Johnny Depp in 2001, Eli is an uneven film that bears all the marks of film-makers still trying to harness their story-telling power. Bursting into theatres with Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, two staples of the early urban crime genre, the Hughes have crafted a film that just looks great. Desaturating the color to the point where everything looks murky and grainy, we are immediately immersed into a world “30 winters” after the world as we know it ended. As Eli walks through the wasteland, it becomes a fascinating visual viewpoint into how our perception of humanity radically changes once civilization no longer keeps out baser instincts in check.
The problem is that for all this great viewpoints, there isn’t much to be had in terms of substance. With an implausible third act to wrap it up, the film doesn’t really have much to it when it comes to a plot or a character arc for Eli. There’s so much devoted to seeing what can look cool that there isn’t an emotional attachment one can make into it. It’s a shame, really, because it wastes a great performance by its lead.
Washington is one of Hollywood’s premier leading men for a reason; any time he’s on screen he has instant credibility. But Eli is a different sort of character then the usual sort of characters he plays; this is much more of a quiet intensity, like a young Pacino, then it is the sort of outwardly charismatic sort of character he plays. Washington has trained hard for the film, eschewing a stunt double, and it shows. There’s a fluidity of motion especially when he uses his machete in fight scenes. Everything he does has a purpose and it just flows from him like he’s a master at unarmed combat in real life. It’s effortless, like he could do it in his sleep.
This is a film that he could’ve sleepwalked through, based on its quality, and yet Washington gives a nuanced performance with what he does physically as opposed to with dialogue. Eli is a man who measures everything and is cautious about everything and it’s in the little things he does that bring out the character. Early on he’s disappointed when his iPod runs out of battery life, thus necessitating his walk into Carnegie’s town. While in some situations it’s a throwaway plot device, Washington brings out subtlety in it. He’s one of the few remaining who lived before the war, and this is one of the last connections he has to his old life. The way he reacts to it is slight in nature but what he does speaks volumes for the character; the gingerly way he handles it, and the joy when he can listen to music on it again, brings out things in Eli that most other actors wouldn’t be able to.
The Book of Eli remains a deeply flawed film that overachieves because it has one of Hollywood’s finest leading men starring in it.
Director: The Hughes Brothers Notable Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals Writers: Gary Whitta