The Book of Eli is more than just a good action film

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Written by Gary Whitta and directed by the Hughes Brothers, The Book of Eli does a good job of walking the middle ground between the pulpy entertainment of The Road Warrior and the more serious-minded vision of the end of the world seen in The Road. Its story revolves around Eli (Denzel Washington), who walks through a post-apocalyptic United States carrying with him the last surviving copy of the Bible. He believes he has been charged by God to deliver this book to a place where it will be safe, though he doesn’t know where that might be other than to the west. Looking for supplies, Eli stops in a small town of survivors that’s governed by Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has been looking for a copy of the Bible because he understands its power as a tool of social control.

The film draws influence from the spaghetti westerns of the sixties and the long running Zatoichi series of Japanese samurai films. Thankfully, the filmmakers rarely allow their influences to call attention to themselves. There’s one shot of Eli walking alone on a desert road meant to evoke The Road Warrior, and a poster for A Boy and His Dog appears in one scene, but The Book of Eli is its own movie that boasts some very well done action scenes. The very first fight in the film, a battle between Eli and a gang of thugs shown entirely in silhouette, is particularly arresting. But the Hughes brothers are aiming for more than just an action film here. Yes, they want to entertain us, but they also want us to think about religion and the ways it can be used for both good and evil. It’s clear that this is a movie that believes religion is, in the end, mostly a positive force. That said, the film is also very much aware of the dangers inherent in religion as embodied by Carnegie.

Washington and Oldman are excellent, as expected. So is Mila Kunis as the film’s female lead, proving she’s just as adept at drama as she is at comedy. Directors Albert and Allen Hughes displayed both a strong visual style and a solid grip on storytelling in their first two films, Menace II Society and Dead Presidents. They do so once again here, putting the brothers back on the right track after their last film, 2001’s muddled comic book adaptation From Hell. ***

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