The Hughes Brothers emerged in the early 90s amongst a wave of great African American filmmakers like Spike Lee and John Singleton and seemed destined for great things. Their debut film, Menace II Society, is one of my favorite movies and is immensely superior to Singleton’s similar Boyz n the Hood. After that masterpiece the Hughes differentiated themselves from Singleton and Lee through their clear interest in genre filmmaking, an interest that has become more present over the course of their career… or what little bit of a career we’ve seen. After 1995’s Dead Presidents (a flawed but excellently crafted effort), we needed to wait a long six years for their follow-up, the Johnny Depp starring Jack the Ripper thriller From Hell. After this we needed to wait another eight years for a new film from this duo, the Post-Apocalyptic Denzel Washington action vehicle, The Book of Eli.
Set in some vague distant future in which the world has become a barren wasteland, the film chronicles the journey of Eli (Denzel Washington). Eli has been carrying what’s claimed to be the last copy of the bible west because he feel he’s been given that task. Like most post-apocalyptic wastelands, this territory is beset by raiders and marauders; fortunately Eli’s a total badass capable of taking down multiple opponents with a sword, and if that doesn’t work he has a sawn off shotgun and a pistol that he can shoot with dead on aim, and of course he wears sunglasses this whole time. Early in the movie he wanders into a town that’s being run by a man calling himself Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who has himself been scouring the wastelands for a copy of the Bible that he plans to use for his own purposes. Once Carnegie learns about the book Eli has been carrying he gives Eli an offer he can’t refuse: hand over the book or die. Eli of course has other plans and a chase/duel ensues.
On the positive side, the Hughes’ definitely know the right way to do action on film. This is a movie full of cool, bloody shootings and stabbings, all the stuff people want to satisfy an evening’s bloodlust. Denzel Washington is also almost comically cool; he’s almost like a videogame character in his absolute awesomeness. The film also sports some excellent cinematography and editing. There were definitely the makings for a very fun action movie here and that’s what makes it hurt all the more that this is riddled with dumb plot holes and hypocritical pseudo-religious bullshit.
For starters the film’s central premise does not really make a whole lot of sense. The Gary Oldman character is hell bent on finding a bible, presumably so he can use it to start some kind of cult and gain more power than he already has. The problem with this: there is no reason in the world that Oldman needs a genuine bible in order to start a cult, people have been starting them for centuries simply by making up their own religion and given the apparent illiteracy of the populous here that shouldn’t be much of a challenge. What’s more it is a bit hard to believe that every single copy of the bible could possibly go missing in so short of time, this is only one of the most printed documents of all time people, there’s a copy of the damn thing in every single hotel room. It’s also a bit hard to believe that the knowledge of it is going to disappear over the course of a single generation either.
Frankly, I want religion out of my action films. The whole film seems like some kind of tricky means to Trojan horse Christian stuff into release by pairing it with graphic violence, with thoroughly hypocritical results. I almost imagine that in the nine years since From Hell, one of the Hughes Brother’s found religion and the other wanted to keep making violent action movies, and this schizophrenic project was the compromise they struck with each other. If people want to make Christian movies they’re free to do it, and I can easily ignore them. Movies like The Book of Eli are not as easily to ignore, they come across like some kind of cinematic Narcs, they seem cool at first but at the end of the day all they want to do is preach at you, and that’s pretty lame.
**1/2 out of Four