The Book of Eli (Warner Bros.; 118 minutes; R; widescreen; 2010). Rapper-turned-light-comedy actor Will Smith got dramatic battling after-the-apocalypse zombies in I Am Legend, so in an example of Tinseltown turnabout, it’s usually dead-serious performer Denzel Washington who goes slightly oddball in the end-of-the-world dark comedy (it’s really the only way to peg it) of The Book of Eli.
In the not-too-distant future, the shades-sporting central character played by Washington ambles across the highways of a nuked-out America, a man on a mission who quixotically keeps saying that he’s heading west and he must “stay on the path.” With food and water scarce and motorcycling rapists on the prowl, however, Eli has to occasionally rescue damsels in distress, whereupon he morphs into a samurai-styled ass-kicker who lops off the limbs of his cretinous adversaries.
Meanwhile, the megalomaniacal nasty Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who controls a ghost town of disenfranchised survivors because he has access to a valuable water supply, is in search of a prized tome that has the awesome power to change people’s lives—and guess who’s got that page-turner? It would be churlish to reveal the book itself, although the film’s overt religious messages suggest that it’s not a neoclassic Sidney Sheldon beach read.
This survival yarn comes from the directing team of Albert and Allen Hughes, the fraternal tandem best known for the 1990s urban thrillers Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, although they haven’t been represented on screen since 2001’s From Hell, the Johnny Depp melodrama involving Jack the Ripper. The brothers have mostly steered away from screen comedies as has their lead actor, but all three manage to get their goof on for Eli’s occasion.
Indeed, it’s hard not to have some kind of slumming fun with a movie that obviously takes its cues from the mythological western-flick underpinnings of The Road Warrior, as well as the book-burning paranoia of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. There’s even an old movie poster for A Boy and His Dog prominently displayed in one scene, a nod to that 1975 low-budget cult satire adapted from Harlan Ellison’s sci-fi novella that The Book of Eli is, spiritually at least, on the same wavelength. Oldman, perhaps channeling Timothy Carey’s vintage nutzos, offers hammy villainy as Carnegie (presumably named after the library), while musical eccentric Tom Waits adds to the quirkiness as a pawn-shop hustler. And despite global catastrophe, there’s always room for product-placement plugs, everything from Kmart to J.Crew to the enduring qualities of a KFC handi-wipe.
Even with the tongue-in-cheek approach, however, chances are you’ve already seen this particular bombed-out universe too many times before, a point accentuated by the standard color palette of bland browns that are digitally imposed across the vistas of the movie’s New Mexico locations. The script by Gary Whitta skimps on all the details, and like actors who fashion imaginary backstories to flesh out their characters’ motivations, moviegoers will likewise have to fill in the blanks. The apocalypse is simply described as a “big flash” that transpired 30 years ago (this means lots of skeletons lying around that were flash-fried when it all happened), while Eli’s apparent invincibility is also left to the imagination.
There’s also a climactic twist a la The Sixth Sense that might spur repeat business from audiences who think they missed something the first go-round, but, nope, one viewing (and at two hours, it’s already a long haul) is really all it takes to see everything offered by The Book of Eli’s end game. So it’s best to ignore the stabs at pretentiousness and enjoy the humorous touches, like Carnegie ordering his minions to torch a bag of reading material (which includes Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine), and an inspired plot detour involving creepy old coots named George and Martha (played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) as they boogie to the disco chestnut “Ring My Bell” on their Victrola. And the last scene, with annoying co-star Mila Kunis—from That 70s Show and still a non-actress—as a gun-toting Rambette has simply got to be a gag: If she is humankind’s last hope, as The Book of Eli seems to affirm, then we’re all doomed.