January is the strangest time at the multiplex. In with the leftover holiday-season blockbusters and Oscar bait, there’s usually a glut of films that are too weak in star- and/or buzz-power to fly against the big December guns, and superstar vehicles aiming to do clean-up business during the weak season. The Book of Eli falls firmly into the latter camp: a name-above-the-title, post-apocalyptic actioner designed to cash in on a market that’s obviously lacking in post-apocalyptic actioners. Sarcasm? Indeed. But it’s anybody’s game until the next Will Smith film drops.
The Hughes Brothers’ first film since 2001’s From Hell is a strange film for a strange time. Denzel Washington stars as Eli, a lone traveler in a desolate world where ash falls like tickertape against a perpetually bright, gray sky. His mission is to “go west” and deliver the book he carries in his pack: the last known copy of the King James Bible, all others having been destroyed after the apocalypse “30 winters” ago. Along the way he comes upon a town cobbled together from what appears to be the remains of an Old West retail district, where a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) holds sway. Carnegie is in search of this lost bible because “it’s a weapon” he can use to control minds, to expand his empire. Carnegie finds that Eli bears what he is seeking, he sends forth the young Solara (Mila Kunis) to tempt the new visitor. But lo, Eli “don’t play,” and the girl follows him as he continues on his path. Kunis threatens to be the picture’s Achilles’ heel; she seems terribly miscast in her early scenes, but adjusts.
For all the muddled mess this film could have been, Eli is just a road movie with the occasional decapitation. Despite broad attempts at social commentary—there’s nothing remotely metaphorical about the main characters’ names—it’s quite conventional. You’ll pick up on a dozen familiar references, everything from The Road Warrior and Raiders of the Lost Ark to I Am Legend and 300 and Zombieland. The Bible stands in for any other Holy Grail-type treasure; Oldman is a stock evil genius type, however well-acted; cannibals and zombies are more or less interchangeable. You’ve seen it all before, and you’re aware of this from the very first frame.
But here’s the Hughes Brothers’ big coup: You may actually find yourself wanting to see Eli again. Because watching scenery gobblers like Washington and Oldman go nose-to-nose is the reason we go to the multiplex in the first place. Because the cameos from Tom Waits and Malcolm McDowell give the film a lift when it needs it most. Because, just when you think you’ve seen it all before, the brothers Hughes deliver some of the most stylish battle sequences you’ll ever see, including a one-shot standoff scene in which the camera moves in and out of a house several times before going straight up the barrel of a gatling gun. And because the film’s last-act reveal is on par with The Sixth Sense or The Prestige.