Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Book of Eli

"Are you listening to me son? I'm giving ya pearls here!"

In a scorched world Eli walks alone, carrying a book countless people have died for- including the ones one man has killed trying to get it.

It's no secret that nine out of ten post apocalypse story lines are more or less westerns. Or, that many of them blur together. It is into this world the The Book of Eli is born, fighting to scratch a place for itself among it's kind. For the most part it achieves this, but not for lack of familiar plot points.
After an intriguing view into his life, we follow the mysterious wanderer into a new town where he attempts to mind his own buisiness but winds up killing a hand full of underlings (a common mistake). This inevitably catches the attention of the resident despot. Being the mysterious wanderer that he is, he inevitably pisses Mr. Despot off and escapes back into the wild west where upon Mr. D, in a world where barely anything works and nothing works well, goes after him in a fleet of not only functioning but armored vehicles.
I'm over simplifying of course but my point is clear. That the meat of The Book of Eli is something you've tasted before is not necessarily a death sentence; in truth it may be what makes it work. For the most part you can spend the entire movie pointing at scenes and calling out titles that came before, but on each piece there's a new spin which, when you put it all together, is a decent amount of new along with the recycled. This is the trick to amalgamation movies such as this: re-use is fine if you keep it fresh. I can think of more than one movie that could learn a thing or two from Eli.... You know who you are.
Denzel Washington's performance is less than his best but more than enough to carry the role. Top notch or not, Washington finds a way to endear the title character to you: an expected result given it's one of his three character archetypes: "the stoic hero" (see also the "smooth talking cop" and the "torn military officer"). Gary Oldman follows a rather similar path as the man in charge, Carnegie (a name that hints writer Gary Whitta is well aware of the western tones the movie carries). He gives only half the layered performance we've come to expect- but more than the role needs to stay afloat. Mila Kunis's performance hit or miss, in the end I say she gives the best for what she got, as her character seems a bit underwritten.
This is Whitta's first script to see production, an impressive feat considering it is much more nuanced than any of the performances. That the story rises above it's parts is a testament to his talent, and I'm interested to see what else he can do. His well written script, however, seems a bit off kilter with the Hughes Brothers offerings of action. The action sequences are extremely well done, but seem a little over the top for the mood set by the rest of the piece. The good news is they are kept in check in terms of length (some going by blindingly fast for all the pomp they're ushered in with), which along with the fact that they're limited in number keeps them far away from drowning the story.
On a more personal note, I must say that the hardcore feminist may want to avoid this movie as it really has nothing to offer them. For the glimpses of empowerment we see on the part of the female characters, we spend much more time watching them be ordered, owned, saved or manipulated. In the Eli's defense however the same could be said for most of the men. And at least we don't see the women acting like feral soulless animals. That the world the characters inhabit is a savage one is a message captured in the typical ways: Wanton rape and murder; this is borrowed set piece that no one bother to freshen.
The Book of Eli is a respectable if not down right enjoyable entry into a genre that can so often come out perfectly bland. It's mis-steps are forgivable, which is more than I can say for a lot of it's peers. At some points it doesn't seem to know what kind of movie it wants to be, but the story powers through for the win in the end. This is Eli's strongest attribute, and what makes it worth a viewing.

The Reel Deal Recommends:
Virtuosity: Washington in a wonderful action flick.
The Fifth Element: An awesomely over the top villain from Oldman.
Forgetting Sarah Marshall: A hilarious rom-com with Kunis feeling a bit more natural.

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