The Book of Eli
The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
Written by Gary Whitta

I know it’s unseemly to whine about getting paid to watch movies, but I must get it on record that freelance film critics like myself rarely taste from the cream of the cinematic milk pail. (It doesn’t count when I pay for my own ticket, which anyway is a practice I shun as a Blagojevichian violation of ethics.) Thus the vacationing owner of this beat (currently tanning in San Tropez, or so I understand) gets to review the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man while I am tasked with evaluating Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween II (or Halloween2, as I prefer to call it).

I’m not saying any of this is remotely unfair: if I’d been in a position to unload last year’s Gerard Butler trifecta on him before waltzing off to see Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant, I’d have done it in a New York nanosecond.

Anyway, the irrepressible Pollyanna in me has no problem finding a silver stomach lining to my low-fiber cinematic diet: it has, over time, endowed me with superhuman discernment as to the difference between good crap and bad crap, much as my bon vivant freelancer’s lifestyle has qualified me to rule on the superiority of the Culver’s ButterBurger over the Burger King Whopper.

This is why you should believe me when I tell you to ignore the critics who are dumping on the zippy new postapocalyptic romp The Book of Eli (showtimes), which as I write is polling a scandalously low 46 percent at the review-aggregating Web site Rotten Tomatoes. That advice goes triple for critics applying adjectives like pompous, portentous, solemn, or preachy to this psychotronic little drive-in gem.

But believe me too when I urge you to shun as you would the forwarder of Internet chain letters the deluded byliners who have praised The Book of Eli as a profound spiritual statement, a stirring defense of literacy, or a significant exception to Hollywood’s blockade of Christian themes. This movie couldn’t move a significant idea if it were lashed to a huge, saucer-shaped hot-air balloon.

Here’s exactly what you’ll get for your $11.50 if you go see The Book of Eli, which was directed by twin filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes (Menace II Society, From Hell), who came out of early retirement to tackle a screwball script by newcomer Gary Whitta.

(Warning: the ensuing discussion should not be read by high-strung fanboy types prone to hair-trigger hysteria over reviewers giving away “spoilers.” The rest of you will be fine; we’re not talking about Planet of the Apes here.)

Thirty years after a nuclear holocaust, a lip-chapped tough guy called Eli (Denzel Washington, doing what he does) makes his way westward via the blasted and sepia-toned American freeway system, feeding when he’s lucky on freshly killed hairless mutant kitty-cats. (Which, come to think of it, is an awesome metaphor for the condition of the freelance film critic.)

Periodically Eli is inconvenienced by dry-gulching cannibal bandits, but he has no problem dispatching such social refuse thanks to his mastery of the sword, bow, knife, shotgun, pistol, and Eastwoodian one-liner.

It helps too that Eli is being protected just as Daniel was in the lion’s den by God Almighty—lo, even to the extent that bullets bounce off his back in slow motion. Yahweh’s direct sponsorship of these miracles is indicated by the fact that Eli carries in his knapsack both the last Bible on earth—King James Version, unrevised—and the name tag from his decidedly non-ass-kicking preholocaust gig as a Kmart sales associate. (We don’t actually learn for certain that the book in Eli’s bag is a KJV until about 40 minutes into the movie. Prior to that, we only know that it’s a spiritually heavy volume, and the coyness of the script here licenses at least short-term fantasies that you’re watching a better, even weirder movie built around, say, the Book of Mormon, or perhaps Eat, Pray, Love.)

Anyway, it transpires that Eli’s Bible is the last of its kind because certain parties decided in the immediate aftermath of civilization as we knew it that Christianity, or perhaps religion in general, was to blame for Armageddon. It’s not clear where these militant secularists found the time and energy for an organized censorship drive between mutant cat hunts, but all other copies of the Word have been destroyed.

Eli is on a mission to deliver the last remaining copy to supposedly fertile spiritual ground on the west coast, but he’s waylaid in intervening red-state territory by an ambitious gangster, social rebuilder, and bibliophile named Carnegie, magnificently personified by planetary treasure Gary Oldman. (The name Carnegie is one of the script’s better jokes, evoking as it does both the author of How To Win Friends and Influence People and the robber-baron-turned-philanthropist who spent his vast fortune spreading book culture by constructing public libraries.)

His daily regimen of defensive homicide notwithstanding, Eli is positioned as the very model of Christian humility and enlightenment. Conversely, the evil but hilariously eloquent Carnegie embodies the principle that religion is only good for good people. Carnegie covets Eli’s Bible for precisely the same reason that all of the other copies have been destroyed: its proven track record as a way to bend the credulous many to the will of the malignant few.

It’s really pretty funny that some reviewers have hailed The Book of Eli as a moving religious statement while others have bridled at its alleged evangelical agenda, because its general tendencies are solidly secular provided you discount the way supernatural forces protect Eli at every turn. Besides, no number of miracles could offset the resounding Unitarianism of the film’s final act, in which Eli delivers his precious cargo to San Francisco if you please, where a pony-tailed Malcolm McDowell shelves it alongside the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita, and all the other illumined best sellers.

Anyway, a bunch of other, comparably awesome nonsense goes down in The Book of Eli: Our man Denzel rescues a mother-daughter team of virtuous babes (Jennifer Beals and Mila Kunis), reluctantly takes tea with dotty cannibal retirees George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour), and pays a crazy pawnbroker (Tom Waits) to recharge his MP3 player using precious KFC wet naps as currency.

Obviously some of this stuff is pretty hard to swallow—I mean, those wet naps dry out in a matter of months. Regardless, I haven’t seen such a satisfying piece of crap since, I dunno, Daybreakers. In my line, it’s films like this that make waiting for the apocalypse bearable.