What names do you associate with good movies? For me, there are only a few actors around at the moment whose name alone stands as testament of the quality of a production. I was disappointed by Pitt’s Benjamin Button (and by his contribution to Inglorious Basterds), Crowe’s Robin Hood, and even Cruise’s last couple of movies have been under par. Clooney flips from undeniable excellence (Michael Clayton) to frivolous silliness (Leatherheads, Burn After Reading), and then back again (Up in the Air). Basically, there are scant few actors around who provide us with consistently entertaining releases, of an undeniably good standard. I would say that DiCaprio, in a total reversal for me, has now become the only actor who achieves either excellent (Inception, The Aviator, Shutter Island) or very good indeed (Blood Diamond, The Departed, Body of Lies) results, time and time again. He’s probably the only name that will compel me to go to see a movie in the cinema.
Coming close second is a certain Mr Denzel Washington. Now this man provides a whole different type of movie. Although he’s capable of great performances in great movies, he tends to veer more towards providing consistently good performances which bring out the best in reliably solid movies. He’s only done two must-see movies in the last decade (Training Day and Man on Fire), but the other ten film’s he’s made have never been less than entertaining. His fourth collaboration with Tony Scott is about to hit the Big Screen, Unstoppable, which will no doubt prove to be just as stylish, action-packed and exciting as the other three (well, perhaps not as good as Man on Fire). In the meantime we get The Book of Eli, the first film from The Hughes Brothers Directors since their dark 2001 Johnny Depp murder mystery, From Hell. So will it prove to be a great Denzel Washington movie – or at least another consistently enjoyable one – or will it be the exception to the rule?
“The war tore a hole in the sky, the sun came down, burnt everything, everyone”
Set thirty years after an unspecified apocalyptic disaster devastated the globe, we follow a unidentified lone nomad, wandering purposefully through the barren wastelands. Carrying a book – a very important book – he has one sole mission: to deliver it to the West Coast of America. As he makes his journey, one step at a time, he encounters various individuals – from a gang of cannibals to a small outpost town which has attempted to build some form of infrastructure amidst the chaos. The town is run by a man who also happens to be looking for the book. And when these two individuals meet, their polar opposite ideas about what to do with the book become clear, and much death ensues.
“I need that book, I want that book, I want you to stay but if you make me have to choose I'll kill you and take that book.”
The Book of Eli paints a bleak, almost monochromatic impression of a dystopian future. Pockets of radiation still exist, where radioactive ash still falls, but there is also a smattering of hope that there might be some areas unaffected by the, no doubt man-made, ‘natural’ disaster. Water is the most expensive commodity, and food is pretty hard to come back too – with many turning to cannibalism as a consequence. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a well-envisioned one, with almost every detail accounted for: illiteracy is rife, guns are prone to inaccuracy due to neglect, and shampoo is a rare luxury. Even the clichéd cannibalism concept is given the extra dimension of leading to Kuru side-effects (akin to CJD aka Mad Cow disease), which is a nice touch.
Within this richly painted landscape, there are several players at work. The nomad, who knows the good that the book can do, and wishes to see it delivered to the right people, so that they may spread the word; and the gang leader who runs the town, and who can also see the power of the book – but instead wants to wield it so that he may control his people within an ever-growing empire. It’s an interesting war of faiths, almost insightful in its depiction of the flaws and benefits resultant from religious power. Almost.
Unfortunately, that’s about as deep as it goes, because, despite the attention to detail, the unusual setting and the religious undercurrents, this movie still runs on pure octane. It may feel like it’s shrouded in what appears to be a much more meaningful subject-matter, with a much deeper purpose, but the narrative still basically exists to fill the gap between several prominent action sequences. Depending how you look at it, the movie is either The Road-lite or Mad Max 2 with fewer vehicles, but whichever way you look at it, everything in it takes a distinct backseat to the action.
"A voice told me to carry the book out West. It told me that a path would be laid out before me, that I'd be led to a place where the book would be safe. It told me that I'd be protected against anyone, anything. I've been walking ever since."
Is that such a bad thing? Well, no, from a purely visceral, in-the-moment entertainment point-of-view. But this is a 2 hour movie. And by barely scratching the surface of some very interesting religious and philosophical dilemmas, which could have afforded the movie a much more heavyweight angle, the end result seems undeniably limited. Beyond that, even taken on a purely action level, the movie unfortunately does not always hit the mark. It has its moments – the bar-room fight, the street shoot-out and the assault on the house (complete with Children of Men-style tracking shot) standing out as the best set-pieces – but it also fails to deliver at either the beginning or the end of the piece, instead attempting to offer style and substance at both its book-ends, but only establishing one of the two.
Sure, the heavy stylisation is great – the Hughes brothers are still very capable Directors, with an eye for a cool shot – but that does not make up for the lack of resonance. When all is said and done, you will reach the twist-laden end, realise that you will probably have to watch the movie again to pick up all of the clues along the way, and then (unlike with Scorsese’s mystery masterpiece, Shutter Island) probably decide not to bother. It’s that kind of movie. Enjoyable, for the duration, but not quite worth revisiting. And thus far less than what the filmmakers had obviously attempted to deliver, as well as less than what fans were really expecting from the material. Which is a shame because, whilst there may not be a whole new movie to discover, a second watch does reveal something of a second layer to the proceedings. One which only a few will have the stamina and inclination to explore. There are some great ideas here, but the limited delivery just does not make the most of them.
Still, the film does have the aforementioned action sequences going for it. As well as two undeniably entertaining central performances: from Denzel Washington, and the ever-great Gary Oldman. Washington is on good form, but then again he requires neither a solid script nor a rich character to still bring an enjoyable performance to the forefront: he is that good. Here, he does the best with the material – which affords him just about enough room to breathe – but he certainly isn’t delivering a Training Day/Malcolm X rendition.
With a little more attention to character development (on the part of the Directors) he probably could have worked his magic to far greater effect, the final twist leaving you eager to revisit the film, rather than just feeling ‘when I get around to it’ about it. (As I’ve stated, if you do go back and watch it again, you will probably notice a far more nuanced performance from Denzel, but the lack of overt depth the first time around – whilst somewhat understandable – does not really entice you back in).
On the plus side, he delivers a fair amount on the action front. Sure, the initial knife sequence was slightly disappointing (I heard that Washington trained in Kali knife fighting so that he could do all of the scenes himself – but none of that helps when the entire fight takes place in the shadows) but after that we get a much better knife fight (the aforementioned bar-room confrontation) and a superb street shoot-out which sees him practicing moves from the Man on Fire school of shooting (even the back cover has an identically-angled shot of a similarly sunglass-clad Washington, wielding a pistol with his arm outstretched) to deliver bullets accurately to their targets. Perhaps the overall result is neither as iconic nor as multi-dimensional as Washington (or the Directors) were hoping for, but it is never less than engaging, and is probably the backbone holding together the whole film.
“I can't imagine what it must feel like to have what you want so close, and it might as well be a million miles away.”
Gary Oldman has been experiencing something of a resurgence lately. The legendary villain from Luc Besson’s Leon, he never really managed to strike out a career as a lead actor (although Romeo is Bleeding is a valiant, underrated effort in that regard) but, thanks largely to his role in the recent, superior Batman reboot films, he is still able to get choice supporting roles. And occasionally this means that we, once again, get to see him ham it up as a villain. The Book of Eli’s villain, the power-crazy town boss, is a solid enough role for Oldman, who offers up a infinitely superior antagonist to your average post-apocalyptic bad guy (c.f. Waterworld’s Dennis Hopper) even if he is not dealing with top notch material here.
Rounding out the cast we have Rome’s Ray Stevenson as ‘lead henchman’, Flashdance’s Jennifer Beals as a blind muse, and Mila Kunis (who was far more natural in Forgetting Sarah Marshall) looking distinctly out of place modelling the latest, pristine, Top Shop garb in this bleak dystopian setting. We also get cameos from veteran heavyweights Michael Gambon and Malcolm McDowell. But this is Washington and Oldman’s movie, and you come here to watch them butt heads in a bleak, dystopian wilderness.
It’s a shame then, really, that they did not make more of these confrontations. The power of the book, which they both seek to use, is discussed between the two, but only skimmed over. It’s a brief footnote to what could have been a powerful exchange. The crux of the story lies in how these two opposite individuals envisage the future of mankind, but – one-liners notwithstanding – the narrative never really goes beyond the notion of two guys shooting at each other.
And even if you do summon up the courage to watch this overlong film for a second time (it already feels like a ninety minute actioner that has been stretched to over two hours by unnecessary establishing shots and overuse of slo-mo), the final act ‘reveal’, which should allow for a whole new viewing experience, is not entirely effective. There are some nice moments, some real attention to detail, but overall it still feels like a bit of a contrived gimmick, rather than a fully fleshed-out extra dimension. It stretches plausibility that little bit too far, which is a shame, when you see the lengths the filmmakers have gone to in order to make the ‘twist’ work on a second viewing (tweaking the soundtrack, nice visual touches, and a new dimension to Washington’s well-nuanced contribution).
Ultimately The Book of Eli is disappointing most for its missed opportunity. They could have done so much more with the material – the setting, the story, the cast and even the action could have been excellent, rather than just reliably fun. I mean, there is just so much potential in the richly religious narrative, but they don’t bother to fully develop it. This really could have been all about a strong battle between faiths, rather than just another Mad Max 2 / Waterworld / The Road rip-off, with religious overtones thrown in to spice things up. If it were that kind of superior, quality movie, the final twist could have left you desperate to watch it all again, to pick up all the little signs along the way. But, alas, it just wasn’t meant to be. The Book of Eli, whilst it could have been great, is instead merely good, nothing more than an enjoyable but – shockingly for the subject matter and calibre of the cast – ultimately quite limited, and even possibly forgettable, post-apocalyptic actioner. If you want weight, watch the far more harrowing, haunting The Road. And if you want action, watch one of the Mad Max movies. And if you want both weight and action, watch the superior Children of Men. If you’re done with the top genre entries – and just want something you haven’t seen before – then this probably worth a watch. It could have been so much more, but it is still quite entertaining for what it is.
“In all these years I've been carrying it and reading it every day, I got so caught up in keeping it safe that I forgot to live by what I learned from it: do for others more than what you do for yourself.”
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