Against my better judgment, I enjoy The Book of Eli. Here’s an Apocalyptic action flick so brain-dead dopey it’s amazing Nicolas Cage isn’t in it. On top of that, it’s slathered with some pretty gooey pseudo-religious hokum. But like a little dog in a clown costume, the movie combines two negatives to create… well, something entertaining.
Though the film is all cool surfaces and zero smarts, some of the credit for The Book of Eli not stinking as much as it should must go to Denzel Washington—the guy can sell just about any soap, no matter how ridiculous or beneath his talents. Washington’s secret weapon has always been that layer of churlish annoyance just under the smile and the charm, and he’s got it working overtime here. He plays Eli, a survivor of a nuclear apocalypse who’s wandering a wasteland of bandits, cannibals, and crime lords while carrying the last remaining copy of The Book. (The film’s title is a pretty good indicator of its subtlety.)
To be clear, I find The Book of Eli offensive on a lot of levels. After the grim brilliance of The Road, it seems wrong to wring cheap action fun out of post-Apocalyptic fantasy fluff like this—in the same way you shouldn’t laugh at Hogan’s Heroes after you’ve seen Schindler’s List. On the other hand, I do still laugh at Hogan’s Heroes, and I do still dig dusty, radioactive wasteland flicks where everyone wears goggles and drives the latest in Road Warrior family trucksters.
What makes The Road so powerful is it doesn’t indulge in wishful thinking about how ennobling and righteous and almost fun the post-Apocalypse will be. The Book of Eli on the other hand gives us a wasteland that hearkens back to the Good Old Days of the Wild West. (Lest you miss the point, one character continually whistles Ennio Morricone.) It’s the L.L. Bean Apocalypse, where men are men, and women still have great skin despite three decades of radioactive scour. (Thankfully while all other technology seems to have been knocked back to pre-WWII levels, breast augmentation surgery and push-up bra innovation still thrive.) It’s a washed-out America After the Fall where there’s no apparent food supply, but plenty of gasoline and bullets—where the hero’s primary survival issue is getting his iPod recharged. This is the character-building kind of Apocalypse—like an extended camping trip for civilization.
Dragged down to its level of inanity–where what looks cool always trumps logic, reason, and environmental reality—you can have a hoot with The Book of Eli. The film’s directors, the Hughes Brothers, are solid stylists with the cinematic nuance of a cinder-block fight. They love them some deserted road and sepia skies, and they’re no slouches when it comes to a good shoot out or knife fight. (Though I’m afraid to ask exactly where Eli was hiding that long bow and arrows he magically produces halfway through the movie.) The Hughes keep the movie barreling forward on dumb charm and dusty thrills, seemingly oblivious to the logic holes and philosophical flaws in their flick. (Jesus may say turn the cheek and love thy neighbor, but Eli’s Old Testament God still has a keen taste for the ol’ eye for an eye ultraviolence and red-red kroovy.)
(Though I have more than a few nagging questions. Why does a 20-something character laugh when an older couple play Anita Ward’s disco-cheese “Ring My Bell”? She’d be far too young to have ever heard the song or have any context for its ironic kitsch. And you mean to tell me all these folks were out there in the desert for 30 years, less than a day’s drive from the Pacific Ocean and never bothered to roam that far?)
Through it all–including a final plot twist that either ennobles the whole proceeding or renders it laughably ridiculous–Denzel maintains a straight face and keeps The Book of Eli from devolving into pure drive-in cheese. He’s aided by Gary Oldman as the Old-West-style robber baron bedeviling Eli—presiding over the Last Chance Saloon of Cliches the actor seems to have ingested a bit of the Holy David Carradine while regurgitating the Full Nicholson. Mila Kunis sulks and sashays the role of The Tag Along Girl into something a little more effective than you’d expect. And folks like Tom Waits (who may have actually been born in a post-nuclear wasteland), Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, and Michael Gambon add local color.
In the end, The Book of Eli is more goofily enjoyable than it has any right to be. None of its parts make a lick of sense, and yet it somehow works overall on a nicely shallow, comic-book level of silliness. After all, an Apocalypse with iPods, Oakley sunglasses, and Denzel? Who wouldn’t be down with that?