Wednesday, January 20, 2010

He walks alone: The Book of Eli


He walks alone across a colorless desert wasteland. He demonstrates fantastic skill with bow and arrow, machete, and shotgun. He answers with a terse “No” when the attractive Solara (Mila Kuni) asks if she can accompany him. When Solara witnesses his incredible martial arts skills, she wonders, “Who are you?” Is this the man without a name in an austere, violent spaghetti Western? No. This is a man called Eli, played by Denzel Washington (whose presence carries this Hughes brothers film), in an austere, violent addition to the post-apocalyptic genre that has all the trappings of a Western with shades of Mad Max (all those souped-up vehicles that seem to find enough gas in a world devastated by nuclear war).

A world in which you eat stray cats, barter for clean water, and try to stay away from marauding gangs of cannibals (outlaws) is a perfect setting for a dusty, crumbling Western town (with a dilapidated J. Crew) ruled by same-old-sleazy-villain Gary Oldman as Carnegie (yeah, those industrial tycoons were capitalist monsters) who is reading up on the history of Mussolini but is looking for a special book: that sacred book that has the power to unite people. (Wonder what book it is?) And Eli just happens to be carrying said book when he wanders into this tough Western town to get a battery charged so he can listen to his iPod as he wanders.


In addition to other violent martial arts combats in which severed heads and limbs and sprays of blood are shown in kind of cool but somewhat cartoonish silhouette, a showdown must ensue in this wasteland town. Because Carnegie wants that damn book so he can use it to gain power! (What are the advantages of power when the world’s like this? More food? Better water? Concubines? I guess. Take over the whole devastated world?) The shootout in town is fun, and this is followed by another standard Western movie scene: the shootout at the besieged house whose thin wooden walls get riddled by small arms fire – and, in this case, a Gatling gun and an RPG. In another tribute to Westerns, Carnegie’s right-hand man, the dude wielding the RPG launcher, likes to whistle an Ennio Moricone theme (actually from Once Upon a Time in America, but you get the point).

I enjoyed Washington’s role and his portrayal of this butt-kicking man of faith, and I loved the Western elements. The ending, reminiscent of Fahrenheit 451, takes us to a devastated San Francisco where the Golden Gate Bridge has a big hole in it, and humanity’s last best bastion of hope is on Alcatraz. I liked the hopeful ending, how Eli fools Carnegie when it comes time to relinquish the book, and the whole veneration of books theme. I also enjoy Denzel Washington and any movie that resembles a Western. Not bad for my first viewing of a film released in 2010, and here's hoping this turns out to be a great year in film.

15 comments:

FilmDr said...

Excellent review. You make good points about the Western influence, but I was bothered by the way the film alludes to Children of Men in places (especially the small boat scene), the incongruity of Mila Kuni's whole chic LA survivalist look, and the general emphasis on the Bible. Is this a Christian movie? Why would people go around destroying Bibles after the nuclear destruction of most everything? The movie kept on piling on implausibilities until I found myself missing The Road. The treatment of Washington is so hagiographic, it reminded me of Costner's egregious sanctification in Waterworld.

Hokahey said...

Thanks for your thoughts, FilmDr. The Children of Men thing didn't occur to me but, wow, it's so obvious - and the water crossing suggests the crossing from disaster and chaos to hope.

You know, ultimately, I enjoyed the religious side of this film, which kind of works well along with the whole reverence of books thing that I always dig.

Interesting thing about the burning of the Bibles. I thought maybe the war had been an Islamic (when McDowell places the Bible in his collection, he places it near or next to the Koran) vs. Christian sort of thing - so people blamed the war on religion and burned any symbol of it. Then the film seems to make the statement that religion can be used for bad (Oldman) but it also is full of good.

As far as implausibility goes - it bothered me that it's never explained how the shots that hit Eli's back in the town showdown don't do anything to Eli. Kevlar vest? And when somebody's got a Kevlar vest, or body shots ain't working for some reason, why don't they shoot the sucker in the head???

FilmDr said...

(spoiler alert) I thought the showdown might have been a reference to the conclusion of A Fistful of Dollars, when Eastwood's character has a convenient piece of metal under his poncho, but otherwise I agree. Is Eli resistant to bullets then? Why doesn't Oldman's character shoot him in the head later, allowing Eli to live on indefinitely gutshot? If Eli always has a supernatural reason to live, then where is the suspense or drama in anything he does? He will always win anyway.

Hokahey said...

It would have been nice if Eli had shown us his piece of metal!

I agree. When it comes to butt-kicking, invincible heroes like Eli, etc, etc, the suspense factor is definitely compromised. Most action movies these days just can't deliver the suspense. That seems to be a lost art.

Daniel Getahun said...

Wow, was not expecting you to come out with a positive take on this one, but of course I haven't seen it. I've liked previous Hughes Bros. movies but I'd like them to get back to urban stories. At least this is an attempt at an original story, though, and the reviews have been more mixed than decidedly negative. Maybe I'll eventually catch up to it.

Hokahey said...

Why surprised? I'm a sucker for post-apoco-cinema. I loved I Am Legend. This is similar - but grimmer, more like a Western. I loved the Western trappings. And Denzel gave the film strength.

Daniel Getahun said...

Well I guess not surprised that it would appeal to you, but surprised (based on the reviews) that it delivered. And as good as Denzel might have been, I was a little skeptical at the ads saying he's "never been better". I mean did he really have that much to work with?

Hokahey said...

His character is an interesting one - in an enigmatic Western, taciturn hero sort of way. I liked that. Yes, reviews were bad. EW's was a D, and I felt a little dumb. I could see what they were saying, but I still had a good time. That's what it's all about - you have a good time seeing the movie (Knowing) or you don't (The Lovely Bones).

Babba said...

Good review, just one correction the guy in the car is whistling a tune from Lonely Sheppard by Gh. Zamfir, not Ennio Morricone.

Sheers!

Hokahey said...

Thanks for the comment, but are you sure on that tune? Sure sounds like Once Upon a Time in America to me.

Hokahey said...

Actually, Babba, I was going just on my knowledge of Morricone's music, but take a look at this -

Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
- one of the characters repeatedly whistles Ennio Morricone's theme to Once Upon a Time in America
.

Scott said...

Even though I found the movie to be fairly awful, it's become endlessly compelling in its Western influences (which kind of make sense; given that society is trying to rebuild itself, they'd have to go through stages of civilization), and especially the idea of Christianity being spread through oral tradition until the printing press was developed (and the question of what changes might've befallen the Bible as a result). While this is basically ripped direct from history and transplanted post-Apocalypse, at least this was an action movie with some intellectual heft.

Oh, and I was mighty impressed with the action scenes, particularly the shootout at the house and the super-wide shot of the car exploding.

Hokahey said...

Thanks, Scott. Yes, I enjoyed those Western elements and the oral tracition theme. I'd love to be able to memorize a whole book. I liked the action too - enough of it but not too much.

Stephanie said...

I saw the movie today for the first time. After reading the posts about the tune that's being whistled, I went back and checked the closing credits. It is Once Upon A Time In America. I love The Book of Eli. Even if I wasn't religious, I would still love this movie based on the original concept and storyline.

Hokahey said...

Stephanie, thanks for the comment. Glad you enjoyed the movie. And, yes, I knew it was Once Upon a Time in America.