Film Review: The Book of Eli

Before it loses its way in the home stretch, the Hughes Brothers' take on the post-apocalyptic genre makes for gripping entertainment.

Were it not for an unfortunate bit of miscasting and a third act that can most generously be described as problematic, The Book of Eli might have been a top-tier post-apocalyptic action flick, a curious sci-fi sub-genre populated by terrific entertainments like The Road Warrior, fun B-pictures like Doomsday and low-budget drek like Cyborg. As it is, Eli is still an exciting and surprisingly thoughtful movie that's better than its January release date and uninspired marketing campaign make it out to be. Credit for that must go to the film's directors, the Hughes Brothers, reunited for the first time since 2001's From Hell, their disappointing adaptation of Alan Moore's masterful graphic novel.

The duo clearly did their homework while preparing for their comeback project; references to other cinematic apocalypses abound (biker gangs that could have ridden right out of Mad Max; a poster for the 1975 cult favorite A Boy and His Dog displayed in the background of one key scene) and the movie opens with a pre-title sequence that evokes the dark, desolate, ash-strewn world described in Cormac McCarthy's The Road more faithfully than the recent film version of that Pulitzer Prize-winning novel.

But The Book of Eli isn't just two hours of spot-the-homage. The brothers have invested a good deal of thought in creating their own vision of a post-apocalyptic America and, as a result, the images possess a texture and attention to detail that's rare in a lot of big-budget action movies. (Bonus points for eschewing any voiceover narration, one of the more significant missteps made by John Hillcoat in his adaptation of The Road.) They've also successfully challenged themselves to devise action sequences that depart from the hyper-edited style favored by studios in this post-Michael Bay era. Instead, the Hugheses seem more influenced by the standoffs that were popular in old westerns—both spaghetti and traditional flavor—where the hero took down his opponents in simple, clean strokes rather than through choppy fisticuffs and chaotic gunplay. In fact, the movie's biggest set-piece is an O.K. Corral-style shootout that resembles The Wild Bunch by way of Children of Men.

The Book of Eli’s plot feels like a throwback to those oaters as well, seeing as how it kicks off with a lone stranger walking into a small desert town and promptly getting into a brawl in the local watering hole. In this case, that stranger is Eli (Denzel Washington), a middle-aged road warrior who has spent the 30 years since the cataclysmic event known as the "final war" traveling the ruined countryside en route to a destination that's a mystery even to him. In his pack, he carries all the tools necessary for survival in this ruined world: shades to protect his eyes from the literally blinding sun, a portable battery pack to charge his iPod, a wicked sword to battle roving gangs of cannibals and thieves and, last but not least, the titular tome, which he reads every night before closing his eyes.

It's this book that brings Eli to the attention of the ambitious tyrant Carnegie (Gary Oldman, finally back in full wild-man mode after more restrained performances in The Dark Knight and the Harry Potter films), who runs the town he happens to be passing through. Carnegie dreams of becoming the kind of leader who's worshipped rather than simply feared, but doing that requires access to words and ideas that haven't been heard since the world's religions were dismantled and their texts destroyed in the wake of the war. Thus, Eli's book is the last of its kind and he has made it his personal crusade to keep it from falling into hands that would misuse its teachings for power and personal glory. And if you haven't guessed what the mystery volume is by now, let's just say that it also features a character named Eli...actually, it's where the name originated.

The first half of The Book of Eli is captivating stuff, thanks to the vividly realized settings, the Hughes Brothers' skilled camerawork and an unhurried pace that allows the audience to soak in the details of this ruined world. Midway through, however, the film commits its first major misstep by saddling the hero with a sidekick, a comely girl named Solara (Mila Kunis), who decides to cast her lot with Eli rather than Carnegie. Having an extra person around means that Eli is compelled to talk to her, which results in a number of unnecessary expository conversations that Gary Whitta's screenplay heretofore avoided. It doesn't help that Kunis walks through the movie looking more like a fashion model than a citizen of a post-apocalyptic Earth. If Eli had to have a traveling companion, the role should have been handed to an actress with a tougher screen presence—think Zoë Saldana or Rosario Dawson.

Where the film really runs into trouble, though, is the final act, which has the disjointed feel of a climax that was reworked multiple times on the page, during production and in the editing room. It's not just the inclusion of a few illogical plot developments that disrupts the movie's groove; there's also a noticeable tonal shift that pushes the narrative away from the bleak finale it seemed inexorably headed towards in favor of a somewhat rosier, but not particularly believable, future. Since the Hughes Brothers aren't exactly known for having an aversion to tragic endings—remember the gut-wrenching final scene of their breakthrough feature Menace II Society—it's entirely possible that this was a case of studio and/or star interference. Even in its compromised form, The Book of Eli is well worth seeing, but it's a shame that it ends with a whimper instead of a bang.