Once you stop reminding yourself how many post-apocalyptic action films THE BOOK OF ELI initially looks like, you'll realize it is much closer to the classic western in many ways. The lone, quick-with-a-weapon, short-on-words anti-hero who passes through town could be any early Clint Eastwood character. The Friendly Shop-keep who is alternately on the defense and just informative enough to move the exposition along is a staple in such films. The town's centerpiece is a saloon and hotel where a dominating local leader presides over gangs of toughs that run roughshod on any unsuspecting travelers foolish enough to walk the roads alone.
But those post-apocalyptic notes ring true as well. Over 30 years before, a war tied to religion wiped out most of the country (it is unstated if the whole world is in a similar state), and now bands of humans scrounge the wastes for water and food. Strange that the film has so many parallels to the recent drama THE ROAD; replace the young boy of that film with Mila Kunis and beef up the action (while watering down the emotion), and you have two very similar movies about men journeying to a coast for vague reasons. But where the trailer for ELI and its release date (those soggy doldrums of January-February) give the impression it will be a standard-fare action flick, the film turns out to be far more than that.
For starters, THE BOOK OF ELI immediately feels washed out, the blanched, grey hues of the wasteland and the roiling sky above almost obliterating any shape on the horizon. Eli (Denzel Washington) walks a solitary path, headed "west" for reasons not made clear until much later in the story. He is quietly self-sufficient, able to feed and protect himself while maintaining a regimen of nightly comforts: cleaning up with KFC handi-wipes, listening to classic songs on an iPod (there's one way to fit music into a story where it shouldn't exist) and reading vigilantly from his prized possession, a leather-bound book that he keeps hidden while amongst strangers.
Arriving in a small town, Eli meets Carnegie (Gary Oldman, withered and wearing Robert DeNiro's CASINO glasses while speaking with a strange accent that occasionally sours into a Southern dialect), who runs everything but needs something powerful to sway the locals. Carnegie has his men searching the wasteland for any books they can find, but their searches are coming up light (that a copy of Oprah's "O" magazine exists after the apocalypse is perhaps scarier than the event itself). Carnegie's woman, Claudia (Jennifer Beals, a lovely sight for post-apocalyptic eyes) is a blind hostess whose daughter Solara (Kunis) works in the saloon. Solara is coveted by Redridge (Ray Stevenson), Carnegie's right-hand man.
But just as the visuals are all grey, the characters are also never quite so easily black and white with their motives and choices. Carnegie, in some ways, feels similar to Gene Hackman's Little Bill Daggett from UNFORGIVEN. He seems to have a purpose that is truer than his actions allow for, and in the grand scheme probably isn't a bad leader, just unpleasant if you get on his bad side. Similarly, Redridge isn't just a violent lackey, and some of his actions speak volumes about a character with very little to do on screen. The women, unfortunately, fare less well. Beals' Claudia is pivotal, but isn't allowed to do much. Mila Kunis, on the other hand, is given loads of screen time, but her young student just isn't a very compelling character, and where she ends up seems obvious.
THE BOOK OF ELI ends up supplying a sufficient amount of action, some weighty contemplation and even a nice twist of an ending, throwing in a few cameo appearances that make for some pleasant surprises. Is it powerful enough to be remembered by the end of the year, or even next month? Maybe not. But for the slowest part of the film year, it is a solid and entertaining film that works on multiple levels, and that's pretty rare no matter what month it is. (Review by Steve Norwood - content provider for the Asian Film Festival of Dallas - AFFD)