Deliver us from "Eli." Travolta had his "Battlefield Earth," Costner had his "Waterworld" and now Denzel Washington has his truly awful sci-fi epic, "The Book of Eli." This futuristic action catastrophe, seemingly collaged together from the lesser works of Vin Diesel, is an affront to anyone with even moderate blood flow to the brain.
Bringing his trademark gravitas to situations that get guffaws, Washington plays a messiah figure marching purposefully across an arid postapocalyptic wilderness. The action takes place 30 years from now. After a nuclear war the dust clouds have settled. Central government is gone, scattered communities operate under the sway of feudal overlords, and bandits in Mad Max attire bushwhack unfortunate travelers. When they set upon Eli, he corrects them with a flashy mix of kung fu and Bowie knife work.
Eli is carrying a valuable book in his rucksack, a book that he will protect at all costs and that the film's evil-dripping villain, Carnegie (Gary Oldman) will kill to possess. The book holds the secret of humanity's future, and to the snarling despot, "it's not a book, it's a weapon."
As anyone who has seen the trailer is aware, the book is the sole surviving copy of the Bible. It's interesting to consider that a King James could repair the ruined fabric of our nation, but in this context the idea feels like a cynical ploy to bring stay-at-home Christian audiences into the heathen multiplex. The notion that this bestseller could vanish is a plot point as hard to swallow as Eli's decision to wear a canvas military raincoat in the scorching desert heat.
But then "The Book of Eli" is a triumph of visuals over common sense. This is a world where thugs lie in wait endlessly beside a deserted highway in the expectation that someone will wander their way. Gary Whitta edited PC Gamer magazine before writing this screenplay, which may explain his fondness for minimal plot, cartoon balloon dialogue and exploding vehicles. His notion of drama will set most viewers a-giggle.
Horribly directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, Washington approaches each scene of bloated silliness with a Sphynx-like solemnity. Every moment is played to the hilt for mythic reverence or over-the-top violence. As the villain, Oldman is generic, neither good nor bad, bringing nothing more to the part than we'd get from a Dennis Hopper or a Geoffrey Rush.
Mila Kunis generates a smallish spark as Carnegie's adopted daughter, assigned to double-cross the stoic Eli. She brings a degree of determination to her character, developing an independent female character who's not always in need of rescuing, but her effort is wasted on this hoot-worthy material. The film comes complete with a last-minute surprise ending so arbitrary and bizarre it caused a member of the preview audience to drop his head into his hands and groan out loud. That member was me.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186