Friday, January 22, 2010

'Book of Eli' an action film with a brain and soul

For the last couple decades, there has been a lot of talk about the possibility of “Mad Max 4” being made. With the release of “The Book of Eli” that may be unnecessary.

“The Book of Eli” is a post-apocalyptic western very much in the “Mad Max” style, albeit a bit more meditative. Denzel Washington stars as Eli, a loner walking west on a mission to get a book to a safe location. Along the way he stops in a town run by the crooked Gary Oldman, who is desperately searching for the very book in Washington's possession. Inevitably conflict ensues.

It is hardly a spoiler to reveal that the book in question is the last Bible in existence. Given that the film's central conflict is for the last known word of God, it is a relief that the film doesn't become a sermon. Too often religious centered films get weighed down in their own self importance and need to spread the word.

The lack of heavy-handed preaching in Gary Whitta's script allows the film to have a broader appeal. The overall theme of the importance of faith is tempered with a message that religion can be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Oldman's character remembers the power of words in The Bible and wants to exploit them to control the people in his town. By not ignoring the ugliness that organized religion can bring out in people, the film is more realistic than the average religious parable.

At the end of the day this is also an action film and there are bursts of well-choreographed violence. Washington's Eli carries with him a very big, very sharp blade and he is well aware of how to wield it. He has a tendency of taking on large groups and leaving them all dead. The first time this is presented in the film it is done so in an effective, even artful, silhouette.

Directors the Hughes Brothers have created a familiar muted post-apocalyptic landscape. Although the look of the film, complete with burned out cars and poorly maintained roads, has been seen before it still remains effective.

The Hughes Brothers tend to go heavy on slow-mo walks towards the camera and low angle close up shots of characters backdropped by the sky. Both of these can be effective, but they are slightly over played here. Even so the Hughes Brothers know how to stage an action scene and they give the film an appropriately somber tone.

There is a big twist at the end that is a genuine shocker. Looking back on the film, there are hints pointing the viewer in the right direction. It is a film that needs to be seen again to go back and see how well the ending really works.

Washington, one of the few examples of a movie star who is also an exceptional actor, gives another reliably strong performance. He is required here to have moments where he is coolly tough and brutal and he does so with flare. He also keeps the performance grounded in real emotion. He is a quiet man, but when he speaks the words count.

It is great fun seeing Oldman relishing a chance to ham it up on screen as a bad guy. In the 1990s these sort of villain roles were Oldman's bread and butter. In films such as “The Professional” and “The Fifth Element” he created baddies that audiences loved to hate.

There is also a strong supporting cast with familiar faces popping up in small parts. Tom Waits has a fantastic bit as a pawn shop owner that does business with Washington. Michael Gambon, familiar to many as Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter” series, has an oddball bit as a survivalist. He has even less screen time than Waits, but he makes it memorable. Jennifer Beals, the star of “Flashdance,” also delivers a nice turn as Oldman's blind wife.

Mila Kunis, a fine comic actor who keeps popping up in action film that don't utilize her comedic abilities, has the third largest role after Washington and Oldman. As Oldman's stepdaughter, she switches sides and teams with Washington. She is adequate in the role, but unfortunately is the film's weakest link.

“The Book of Eli” is an action movie with a brain and a heart. For those who like to think just as much as they like to watch things blow up, here is a film is a good mix of both.

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