Watch out, Denzel's kicking ass for the Lord! Shot like a Nirvana video, The Book of Eli is a post-apocalyptic Western for the Left Behind crowd. Only instead of dainty Kirk Cameron worrying about which souls will make it into heaven, we have Denzel Washington lopping off heads like samurai Zatoichi. It's The Road for those who hated McCarthy's thematic and metaphorical ruminations and longed for a few high-caliber showdowns and some totally righteous decapitations. Unfortunately, when The Book of Eli isn't opening up a can of whoop-ass, it's equally ponderous and self-important.
Its story setup is pure Fox News fantasy, only instead of Christmas, America goes after the Bible, angrily burning every copy in the fiery aftermath of the "Great War." For those of you with a scorecard, that means 6 billion copies were remaindered in 30 short years. AK-47s, however, are in abundant supply. Enter Eli (Washington), who has been walking west all that time, toting the very last copy of the King James Bible. Guided by divine providence, he keeps his head down and finds small moments of peace listening to his still-functioning iPod (which prompts the question: What about e-books?). Denzel is playing Sergio Leone's "Man With No Name," a brutally efficient loner who is reluctantly drawn into the calamities of preyed-upon innocents. Only instead of villainous Lee Van Cleef, we've got Gary Oldman's Carnegie, desperately seeking the "good book" to do bad deeds. See, Carnegie understands that a man with all those pretty words of faith will be able to charm the masses and build an empire — or some such nonsense.
While the fight scenes (too few and far between) snap and crack with stark cinematic verve, the Hughes brothers (Menace II Society, From Hell), directing their first film in eight years, bog down every scene in between with arty compositions (Denzel's seen from every conceivable angle), nonexistent character development, and a complete lack of thematic logic or imagination. It's all so solemn and serious, but without any meaning or context. Eli's a badass with a Bible. That's pretty much all you need to know (aside from the ridiculous twist at the end). The bad guys are, well, bad guys. The virtues of faith, the message of the Bible, are left unspoken and unexamined. Instead, the good book becomes a red herring of sorts, something to be coveted but never really understood. Which would all be fine if the movie didn't pretend that its hero was righteous and divinely protected, gifted with uncanny abilities. Playing coy with its religious underpinnings, and sold as a comic book action flick, The Book of Eli is actually guilty of the very thing it condemns Oldman's Carnegie of: using religion to deliver an empty, amoral, bloodthirsty message of blind faith.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.