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The Road Less Raveled

The Book of Eli (2010)

David Lee/Warner Bros. Pictures

“The Book of Eli” takes place in a bleak, barren wasteland, with society’s detritus strewn about and the few remaining humans caked in dirt and grime. Set some 30 years after what’s called “the flash,” it occupies a standard post-apocalyptic milieu. Yet, at times the Hughes brothers — the filmmaking talents behind “Menace II Society” and “From Hell,” among others — dress it differently. They incorporate cinematography that emphasizes passing clouds and stark shadows, in a noir/graphic-novel approach; and they benefit from the charismatic presence of Denzel Washington as the loner title character.

Yet despite their best stylistic efforts — which include the incorporation of windswept Western gun fights and other such genre tropes — the movie entwines itself in a pedestrian chase-oriented narrative that drags along before descending into irredeemably inexplicable silliness.

Mr. Washington plays Eli, traveling (as do all protagonists in these movies) through a scorched Western landscape to the coast, where hope lies. On the path, he finds his way to a frontier town run by a baron named (rim shot) Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who desperately seeks the book Eli carries and reads with him on a nightly basis. A pursuit, shootouts in which Eli never seems to miss his target and even some martial-arts swordplay follow.

Strange that less than half a decade after “Children of Men,” dystopian cinema needs a reinvention; but we seem to have reached critical mass with the material as it’s currently formulated. So much here — from the Boho chic wardrobes adorned by the characters (check out Mila Kunis’s designer sunglasses) to the relentlessness with which Eli focuses on his mission, to the journey template as a whole — is rendered with such halfhearted staleness that the picture suffers from a fatal lack of energy, an absence of gumption. Additionally, each week seems to offer another movie about heroes leading bad guys on extended pursuits, while much of Mr. Washington’s career has been spent with his heroic character walking straight towards the camera in slow-mo with a serious look on his face. The Hughes brothers succumb to the clichéd requirements of both formulas.

The surreal, washed-out aesthetic, the frenetic yet carefully polished action scenes and the long shots of the deadened world emphasize the brothers’ attempted application of a unique imprint to the visuals. Unfortunately, the film is already well into the third act by the time the narrative starts going similarly strange places, with its heavy pushing of biblical overtones. By then, it’s too late: “The Book of Eli” has trodden down such a conventional path that there’s no way to rationalize the sudden, heavy-handed transmutation into Christian-themed niche territory. I won’t be ruining much by noting the movie ends by pandering to the Pat Robertson crowd, equating a close-up of the King James Bible with the rebirth of civilization in a misguided stab for the affections of an audience that’s probably not there. Where's Kirk Cameron when you need him?


Opened on Jan. 15 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Allen Hughes and Albert Hughes; written by Gary Whitta; director of photography, Don Burgess; edited by Cindy Mollo; music by Atticus Ross; production designer, Gae Buckley; produced by Joel Silver, Denzel Washington, Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove and David Valdes; released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 58 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Denzel Washington (Eli), Gary Oldman (Carnegie), Mila Kunis (Solara), Ray Stevenson (Redridge), Jennifer Beals (Claudia), Tom Waits (Engineer), Frances de la Tour (Martha) and Michael Gambon (George).


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