The Book of Eli
Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes
There are regrettably few things about The Book of Eli to remind one of just how talented twin-brother directors Allen and Albert Hughes are. But there are a few. I'm thinking particularly of a long take early in the movie, beneath a freeway overpass, where Denzel Washington's Eli fends off five attackers at once using a sawed-off machete. All we can see of the fight are silhouettes moving against the sunlight cast from deep in the background. But darkness be damned, every swing of Eli's blade, every lunge and parry, is discernible. Though brief, this sequence makes for an awesome old-school set piece, demonstrating why the fussy, over-edited style of Paul Greengrass's Bourne movies and Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight represented the worst action trend of the aughts.
Too bad, then, that so much else in The Book of Eli feels rote, impersonal, and very last decade. Eli may be a more artfully made Christian martyr action picture than The Passion of the Christ, but that's hardly saying much. In fact, in its not-very-well-thought-out religious viewpoint, Eli is exactly like Mel Gibson's 2004 nation-divider, a movie that all too conveniently reconciles choreographed violence and smug self-righteousness with Jesus's teachings on pacifism and tolerance.
In a post-apocalyptic American West that looks like The Road crossed with Deadwood, Washington's messiah/prophet/whatever, following the instructions of the voice inside his head, shepherds the last surviving copy of the King James Bible to the coast, where the voice has plans for it. Along the way, Eli is beset by roving bandits, the goons of a self-appointed small-town dictator (Gary Oldman) who wants that Book for himself, and an astonishingly large number of product placements to have endured the ravages of a nuclear war—including a shout-out to J.Crew. At least Minority Report was clever about its shameless ad for Gap khakis.
According to Eli, the number one take away from the Scripture is "Do more for others than yourself," and admittedly that's a decent understanding of the New Testament, if not of the Old. And yet based on his practiced way with hand-to-hand combat, and his quickness to kill, Eli's credo is perhaps more accurately described as do others in, before they do you. At one point, he concedes that some have credited the Bible with causing the war that destroyed civilization (a premise that ought to titillate end-timers). But then he shrugs off this theory, even though he spends the entire movie keeping at bay Oldman's Mussolini admirer, who covets the Book precisely for its mind control applications and imperialist potential. The Hughes brothers themselves cannot seem to decide whether they believe in a literalist or an apocalyptic interpretation of the Bible, or both. In the end, which hinges on a plot twist as laughable as anything in an M. Night Shyamalan reveal, the directors cast their lot with the primacy of the text.
In past—especially in passages of Menace II Society (1993) and American Pimp (1999)—the Hughes brothers have romanticized thug life to such a degree as to make the mistake of equating it with an authentic black male identity, whatever that might be anyway. But in Dead Presidents—still their strongest film and still among the most neglected studio pictures of the 1990s—the Hughes brothers allowed their protagonist, played by Larenz Tate, to articulate his feelings of emasculation and to identify their source. Tate's hustler, a Vietnam veteran, was shown developing a class consciousness, and not just a criminal mind. Dead Presidents, and 2001's underrated From Hell, proved what vibrant pop art the Hughes brothers can make when they situate their protagonists, and their protagonists' sins, within a historical context.
And herein lies the commercial hurdle The Book of Eli faces. Although the movie is set in the same drab near future widely available in so many other Hollywood movies at the moment, its real historical context is the Bush II era. A film about holy wars, vigilantism, and the perversion of Christianity, The Book of Eli belongs to a decade that many viewers would prefer, for now, to forget.
Opens January 15