A post-apocalyptic tale, in which a lone man fights his way across America in order to protect a sacred book that holds the secrets to saving humankind.

The religious fervour is easy to dismiss, but the Hughes Bros seem more devoted to the Scripture of the Screen.

In the Hughes Brothers bizarre The Book of Eli the world is smeared in a smoky flaky dust. All bright colours have been drained away. Like The Road, the setting is the US after Armageddon. In John Hillcoat’s excellent film the mood was creepy, scary, and full of despair. Here, The Hughes Brothers seem to take their cues from Spaghetti westerns, martial arts movies and commercials for really expensive consumer products (this last reference could be a gag since everyone here sports some really nifty looking sunglass wear"¦) Or to put it another way, this movie might be about the end of the World, but God, it really looks beautiful all the same. In the manner of clever ad creatives everywhere, the Hughes’, Albert and Allen, know how to take something fundamentally cruel and unappealing and make it look, well, really 'cool’. The tone is comic book thrilling.

The story takes place some 30 years after the apocalypse. There’s little water. Too much exposure to the sun’s rays is dangerous (hence the sunglasses). The scarred landscape is a desert, full of cannibals, and road thieves. Books are rare. Civilisation consists of a shabby cluster of worn down buildings, full of crooks and killers a la A Fistful of Dollars, or Mad Max III.

Carnegie (Gary Oldman) runs a bar and acts like the town mayor, but he’s a bad egg, obsessed with finding a special volume that he believes has the answer to Life, the universe and everything.

Denzel Washington plays Eli and he has the book Carnegie wants so Carnagie holds him captive. Like generations of cinematic lone warriors before him, Eli acts like he’s on a mission from God. Unlike many of them, Eli really is righteous, in the religious sense. He’s a Saint of sorts. Still, he’s truly handy with sword, knife, and gun. The Hughes brothers, as in Dead Presidents and Menace II Society, stage elaborately choreographed rhapsodies of violent action. Here, blood flies magnificently and Eli performs extravagant feats of karate, without breaking much of a sweat.

After escaping Carnegie, Eli heads West with Solara (Mila Kunis), the beautiful-enough-to-be-an-LA-teen cover-girl to complete his quest. She’s a prostitute, the stepdaughter of Carnegie.

There’s a climatic battle. A lot more people die and Eli survives a bullet that would send lesser mortals to their grave, a sure sign that there’s something Divine at work.

Gary Whitta’s script seems set out to mimic the contours of a religious parable. It has simplicity, sweep, incredible last minute plot twists, mystical happenings and a fundamental belief in Faith (as in the Christian faith).

In the US and UK the movie's Pilgrim with a Gun premise, and (apparent) devotion to God, has met with a lot of outrage.

It’s hard to understand that kind of hysteria. Eli is hardly the first movie to propose that God can speak from the mouth of a gun. It’s no more silly, bombastic, glib and morally nutty than a lot of other similar action movies that mask their devotion to a select Almighty in elaborate metaphors. There’s no mistaking that Eli is God’s Soldier so the movies blood letting could be freely interpreted as a sop to a certain kind of religious fundamentalism. That’s going to be offensive to some, and comfort to others. Easily dismissed as grandiose B-movie making The Book of Eli is the kind of genre picture fans love; it’s got a kind of mad, provocative spin, full of teasing allusions to hot button contemporary concerns – a withering ecology, urban decay, a lack of faith in established institutions, a fear of commitment to political solutions.

I’m not at all sure that the movie is as pure in spirit as its detractors like to believe. The Hughes Brothers may be true believers (I don’t know) – but they certainly seemed committed to following genre and its dictates; the movie holds fast to the notion that it’s the Cult of Personality that’s gonna save us! They do seem devoted to the miracles of cinema. Their camera – ably assisted by digital tech – passes through walls to track a projectile and executes impossible moves defying both gravity and physics. The movie is full of 'gee-wiz, Ma, look no-hands" kind of stuff. It’s all seems more in the name of the Church of Cinema rather than the Word of the Lord.


In Cinemas 15 April 2010,
Wed, 08/18/2010 - 11