The Book of Eli (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Book of Eli (2010)

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ANDREW LIKEThere’s a mercurial point at which great trash becomes great art.  Sometimes, in spite of a film’s intentions, it starts off in one category and veers into the other.  The Hughes Brothers have been without film work for nine years now, and the last movie they released was the art/trash straddling From Hell.  They’ve returned to the film scene with The Book of Eli, a movie that is assuredly great trash and, after some developments toward the end, I’d like to say pretty good art as well.

I try and compose myself a bit reservedly when I’m writing reviews, but when it comes to the Hughes Brothers I’d like to make one thing abundantly clear.  Screw the haters, the Hughes’ have churned out nothing but top notch entertainment delivered in a satisfyingly stylish fashion with just a hint of thought provocation their entire careers.  A lot of directors deliver a flash in the pan moment of brilliance then fade off into the sunset with nary another word printed praising their name.  The Hughes’ have been doing this for over seventeen years now and really deserve a lot more credit than they get.

With The Book of Eli they show a level of confidence in their style and delivery that is lacking in a lot of action movies.  There’s no pandering to the ADD crowd here.  Each burst of action is like some strange marriage between Beat Takeshi and Fred Astaire.  Moments of violence are brief and to the point, shot with full view of the participants so we can actually see their skill, and a minimum of cutting to close-up shot’s to enhance the “realism” of the scene.  Between this and the action in Avatar we might actually return to fight scenes where you can tell what everyone is doing without needing the perception of a humming bird.

The plot isn’t the most complex but rewards patience and offers a bit of subtle commentary on religion later on.  Eli (Denzel Washington) is travelling west over the blasted landscape of what was once America after some catastrophe occurred.  He carries a book with him that he feels compelled to deliver to an unknown destination in the west.  Along the way he encounters marauding packs of butchers looting helpless travellers searching for the book that Eli carries.  Eventually he comes across a small town run by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), and after some skirmishes there Eli picks up a straggler by the name of Solara (Mila Kunis).

Their various encounters form a lot of the action in the film and frame Eli’s journey west.  He seems to be protected by some unknown force, or just happens to be very lucky and skilled.  I lean towards the latter, because everyone has been hardened by the post-nuclear (let’s be honest here) catastrophe.  I liked the survival methods that everyone has had to adopt the acclimate themselves to the perpetual desert.  I also liked the fact that the landscape is slowly killing everyone, and those that are clinging to the old towns in Central America are doomed to develop more legions and waste away.

The cast plays all of this absolutely straight and there is no winking to the crowd.  Denzel brings his considerable weight to the role of Eli and, personally, he better work with the Hughes Brothers more often.  It’s nice to see him in a non-Tony Scott action role with some directors that know how to take their time.  Then there’s Gary Oldman, who must have studied some of the craftier evil sheriff’s of the past for his role, and Mila Kunis.  Now that she’s been free of television she’s been slowly showing how great of an actress she is.  She is able to hold her own in every scene with Denzel and turns moments that could have been cheesy into something with dramatic heft.

All this is framed against the Hughes’ excellently crafted landscape.  As Eli travels west the harsh, gray landscape slowly returns with color and vitality.  The transition is subtle and confident as they know what they’re doing - which can be said of a lot of the material.  Every person plays their role completely seriously and trusts the material that they were given.  The script is the weakest part, but sometimes a strong execution is all that’s needed to elevate lesser work into greater heights.

This has been an unusually good year for action movies.  Perhaps everyone is getting bored of the Michael Bay approach to action scenes and trying to give folks something different.  I’m hoping that the Hughes Brothers are able to continue along this path.  They took simple, overused materials, gave them full attention and seriousness, then presented them in an incredibly appealing fashion.  Then that final twist?  I thought it was great to have a subtle point about religion and faith in an action movie like this.  The Book of Eli is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen all year, and deserves to be caught now if you didn’t see it earlier.

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The Book of Eli (2010)

Directed by the Hughes Brothers.
Written by Gary Whitta.
Starring Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, and Gary Oldman.

Posted by Andrew

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