‘The Book of Eli,’ better than expected

BJ Grieve

“The Book of Eli” is a tough movie to quantify. No one involved is going to be winning any awards for their participation in this picture and the film itself flew so low under the radar that it could have been ignored all together. That’s not to say that the film doesn’t have its merits, or should have gone straight to DVD. All that aside, “The Book of Eli” is awesome.

That’s simply the only way to describe it. No one is going to list this movie in their top ten or wait with bated breath for the home release, but this is one incredibly enjoyable movie.

A post-apocalyptic thriller/action movie/parable, this is the first movie from directors Albert and Allen Hughes, typically referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers, since their 2001 film, “From Hell.” Looking at the pair’s body of work gives the viewer a slight sense of what they are getting themselves into. “Menace II Society,” “Dead Presidents” and the aforementioned “From Hell,” were all stellar, if slightly troubled films.

From an original script that Calliope seemingly had a hand in, “The Book of Eli” springboards back and forth between straight action flick to human condition observation to religious parable. Being a post-apocalyptic story, the film is riddled with cliches: the burnt out sky, the lone traveler on the highway, the deconstruction of everything that was once civilized. It is this last element that the Hughes Brothers would appear to have had the most success tackling, given their previous endeavors, but they went the way of the action film that wants to be slightly more.

The trailer virtually spells out to viewers what this book of Eli’s actually is, and if one cannot venture a guess, some discretion will be employed. The greatest selling book of all time is the focal point of the film, as it is the last copy known to man. Denzel Washington, playing the role of Eli, wants to head west with the book, where it is needed and make sure that no one ever forgets what is said on its pages. Gary Oldman’s Carnegie wants to harness the book’s “power” for more practical reasons; to persuade the weak and the powerless from following anyone but himself. He’d make a quite good televangelist.

As the film leaves action movie diplomatic immunity and heads into existential waters, it gets a bit heavy handed. The fight scenes are intense, and actually borderline beautiful between the choreography and the cinematography. They seem a bit out of place given the direction that Eli is taking, however. “A bit of the old ultra violence,” according to Eli, is being employed to protect and deliver the word of God to the people. Actually, that sounds exactly like religion.

It’s the titular Eli’s actions and not Washington’s acting that make him so spectacular. Washington plays the character the same as every character that he has portrayed on the silver screen. Distant, calculating and cocksure, Washington’s performance is nothing to phone the Academy about, but it is not derivative either. The man has been at it for thirty some odd years, and moviegoers would still pay to listen to him read the phone book.

Oldman lends some credible talent to the film as well, with his portrayal of Eli’s eventual foil, Carnegie. Oldman is one of few actors that is completely absorbing to watch on the screen. This man gets so absorbed into his characters that viewers can tend to forget that they are even watching a fictional person. And here he is, doing what he does best. Playing a reprehensible sociopath with just the right amount of charisma, one doesn’t exactly hate him, but knows he/she should. Sociopaths are where Oldman shines, oddly enough. His villains toe the line so cautiously between lampooning and seriousness that they become something entirely their own, and while this performance comes off a bit like he phoned it in, Oldman’s worst day of acting is still better than most other stars best.

The real standouts of the picture are the ancillary characters. None are given the greatest amount of screen time, but with such talented character actors playing these parts, one wishes that Mumbles Washington would spend some time hanging around playing Xbox with them. Malcolm McDowell, Michael Gambon and Tom Waits are always a pleasure to watch, and parts that appear seemingly disposable are made that much more incredible with these veterans in front of the lens.

One would be remiss to ignore Ray Stevenson’s (“Rome”) portrayal of Carnegie’s right-hand man, Redridge. The man plays tough better than late eighties action stars.

“The Book of Eli” won’t change cinema as we know it, but it is a great way to spend too much money at the movies, and will make a great companion to other exemplary films in the genre.

BJ Grieve is a City Times staff writer