INTERACTIVE (Rate the Review)
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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.

Michael Jackson:
The Interviews
Vol. 2 (2009)
. "The Book of Eli"

There's a lot of forgiveness involved in this post-apocalyptic christianity slasher action road thriller and it's entirely needed. Primarily, debuting screenwriter Gary Whitta's vision has to do with Eli, the central figure who, if he's to be a writer of the book --that is, the bible-- or even a re-writer of it, his bloody pathway to getting there is a big item for forgiveness. 1,000 hail Marys may be less than adequate. But, equally in need of forgiveness is the mere fact of releasing another post-apocalyptic fantasy while "The Road" is in theatres and straining for 2009 award consideration. Forgive them G, for co-directors Albert and Allen Hughes ("Menace II Society") know not what they're asking of us.

Of course, Denzell Washington is having a ball being the center of the action and an avatar of a bible thumper at the same time. It's a self-glorifying role and Washington, a great actor of his time, can also be forgiven for falling for something so outrageously heroic. Too bad there's an analytic gene missing because it's a sucker role. What it tries to pass off as serious drama is just too obvious.

Anyway, here we are on the road again after a disaster--caused by some revolution over the good book--has left the earth a chaotic mess with a few survivors. These have formed some semblance of order, setting apart two classes of people: the cannibals and the non-cannibals. But it's all pretty much unwholesome wherever Eli treads as he marches West on orders from the book he carries, the sole extant King James bible after the conflagrations.

In an early sequence, he meets a woman with multiple skin eruptions wailing over a shopping cart that has lost a wheel. Our hero, however, is possessed with a number of superhuman capabilities. He smells the presence of more than just the lone woman and, don't you know, her clan of big dude cannibals emerge from their hiding places and surround Eli. At this point we see Eli's other qualities, those of the kind of speed and martial arts Jackie Chan would envy.

As for the confrontation as a credibility establishment scene, shades again of "The Road," which starts out similarly. The writers of these pieces must drink at the same well.

It leads up to Eli's arrival in a small town run by boss Carnegie (not the Hall--that's his name), who happens to be jonesing for that last known bible because he sees it as the essential key to his control of the masses. He sends his goons out on daily missions to find it, holding back the big reward for when they do. When Eli comes to town, and after obliterating Carnegie's crew in a scene out of "Kill Bill II," he has no idea that the bible has just entered his bar. But, he perceives, correctly, that his new guest would be marvelous on his payroll.

Eli has other things in mind, like the continuation of his journey, but accepts Carnegie's invitation to stay the night. It's been awhile since he's spent a night under a roof and in the privacy of his own room. In the course of time, he's given a meal by blind Claudia (Jennifer Beals--with a relationship to Carnegie that's less than clear). Eli's too wise to trust food from such a source and it remains uneaten until Solara (delicious Mila Kunis), her daughter, shows up. Under Carnegie's demand, she's to pleasure the stranger until he wouldn't dream of not staying.

This leads, not to Eli's corruption, but to the revelation that the bible is finally under Carnegie's roof and to a third act chase that Arnold Schwarzenegger might someday be in envy of. Recognizing that she's in better hands with Eli than under the thumb of the bible-searching tyrant whose commands are her wish if she wants to remain whole, Solara insists herself on the traveling man with these weird powers, complete lack of fear, and unexpected decency. She rightly perceives that where he goes, there goes her personal safety. But that alliance comes at a cost.

Washington, if misguided by a delirium-inducing theme, is as craftily fascinating as ever, recalling to mind the excellence of his subway dispatcher Walter Garber in "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3," his most recent outing. Oldman's taste for weirdly demented villains is once again fully rendered and satisfying, surrounded as he is by people who hate him. Beals is mysterious and beautiful in an underwritten role. Tom Waits shows up as a colorful general shop proprieter. And a bearded Michael Gambon is hilarious delivering southern speech and hospitality.

Kunis shows no signs of growth in the depth of her acting or creativity in character nuance, but she serves the purpose of her role admirably, if minimally.

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The Soundtrack

Don Burgess very capably directed the photography which is imbued with a desaturated coloration leaning toward an earthy brown. Production design by Sharen Davis is all it needed to be. CGI and editorial tricks are modest compared to many another film in the genre.

For all the biblical hokiness and divinity context, the acting skill carries the day and an accompaniment on this journey can be rewarding. Amidst the horrors of cannibalism and sociopathic gruesomeness, nuggets of style and humor shine through, largely by virtue of Oldman's finesse with madness and Gambon's outlandish casting. It hurts to say this because I was hoping I wouldn't have to type "post-apocalyptic" again, at least for a while. Who knew I'd say it's worth the trip, but can someone tell me why end of earth movies are so popular these days? The allure of vampirism with hot babes I can better understand.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Denzell Washington is Eli
The fearless carrier and champion of the book.

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