Over-the-top 'Book of Eli' an enjoyable ride
By BILL GOODYKOONTZ
Gannett Chief Film Critic
"The Book of Eli" plays out like the film version of a great graphic novel that no one ever got around to writing.
Its over-the-top violence is cartoonish at times, menacing at others — which is a good thing. And truly, if one must wander a barren, post-apocalyptic landscape with somebody, who better than Denzel Washington to wander with?
Washington is Eli, a man who has been walking for 30 years, the 30 years since a war laid waste to the world.
Survivors have long since turned desperate; imagine a cross between the world of "The Road" and "Mad Max" and you'll have an idea. It's gotten so grim that when strangers show up in a town, the first thing they're asked to do is hold out their hands, to see if they're steady.
It seems that too much cannibalism leaves one with the shakes.
Along with the provisions he scrounges along the way, Eli carries, with great care, a book. To him, it's clearly more than that, though. It's a totem of sorts, and he guards it with his life.
There's much to guard it against, of course. But your run-of-the-mill roving savage is nothing compared with Carnegie (Gary Oldman).
He runs the town that Eli finds himself in, and he wants the book, badly. He has, in fact, searched the world for it for years, sending bands of marauders out to find it. Its contents, he is convinced, are all he lacks to take over what's left of the world.
Eli, naturally, will have none of it. He hasn't guarded the book all this time to hand it over to a guy so obviously devious he lacks only a handlebar mustache to twirl. So he leaves the town, albeit violently, with Solara (Mila Kunis) in tow; she's had enough of Carnegie's mistreatment of her and her mother, Claudia (Jennifer Beals). (Like some survivors who lived through the war, Claudia was blinded; Carnegie isn't exactly the picture of compassion.) So a chase ensues, turning "The Book of Eli" into a mash-up of road trip, action-adventure fare and the old reliable, the buddy movie.
It's a better film when Eli is on his own, frankly; Kunis is a fine-enough actress, but this is Washington at his most tail-kicking, if occasionally comic-book, intense — brooding and silent, until pushed too far. But Solara does give him someone to protect and, more importantly, someone to explain the contents and importance of the book to (though most of the audience will have figured that out long before).
"The Book of Eli" is directed by the Hughes brothers, from a script by Gary Whitta. They bring the right touch to it, though things get a little heavy-handed toward the end, when the message of the film is laid on a bit thick. The fun here is in watching Washington, a sort of avenging angel, and Oldman, who has a ball with Carnegie's trumped-up accent and scheming. Throw in the stylized look of the ruined landscape and you've got a most-agreeable film.
One note: There is a bit of a twist, not obvious, which I pass along solely to heighten your observation of the film's details. It'll be more fun that way.