The Book Of Eli is almost a great movie, and I enjoyed watching it to ponder all that it could have been. With the stylized and hyper-violent underpinnings of The Matrixit lacks that film's quasi-philosophical and narrative strengths, presenting instead some underdeveloped ideas on religion wrapped in a plastic storyline that could at best be described as mildly thought-provoking, at worst, pretentious. In spite of this, the vision of post-apocalyptic desolation on display is beautifully shot and often dazzlingly atmospheric, and the action is also top-notch. It deserves recognition for all of these things, because they are cool. 

The story centers around Eli (a Man with No Name type played by a magnetically brooding Denzel Washington), who has spent the last 30 years wandering a barren landscape that was torn asunder by "the Flash" (...not, I am presuming, because nobody was taking his red spandex and lightning ears seriously). Other than a bow and arrow, some guns, an ass-slicing scimitar, an iPod and a few KFC handy wipes, this warmly-dressed superhero's most prized possession (spoiler alert!) is a book, from which, we are told, he draws nightly inspiration. Lest Eli be deprived of company on his lonely journey (he could have a had a cat, but he opts to kill and eat it instead), he routinely encounters roving gangs of cannibalistic lunatics, whom he just-as-routinely dispatches with some crazy mad sword skills. In the first of these showdowns, the entire battle is played out, Kill Bill style, in silhouette, and represents just one of the film's many great stylistic flourishes. 

Eventually, Eli reaches a small town that is run by a man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), whose tyrannical impulses leave him desperate to possess the very book that is Eli's most precious cargo. Believing the power of its words to be strong enough to hypnotize an entire population, Carnegie expects that it will give him the ability to build a franchise of enslaved subjects. After watching an incredible display of Eli's fighting prowess, he attempts to win him to his cause by deploying his mistress's daughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), as a seductive bargaining chip. Eli, however - in what is possibly the biggest strain on credulity in the entire movie - proves completely immune to her advances, and by the time Carnegie has learnt from her about his treasured tome, he has disappeared back into the bleak surroundings whence he came. Captivated by the words he read to her from the Bible (sorry, did I just write that?), Solara soon catches up with Eli, with Carnegie and his band of bootlickers not far behind.

The primary conflict in all this derives from Eli's engagement with various forces that would interfere with his mission (revealed to him, burning bush style, by an "inner voice") to deliver the Good Word to a grateful audience somewhere in the West. (A little more clarity, one can't help but feel, may have shaved some time off his 30 year devotion to the purpose.) Denzel Washington brings a solid amount of psychological tension to the role, as Eli's relationship to Solara gradually comes to tax his loner mentality to a dangerous degree. The other leads are no less convincing, with Oldman injecting his customary dose of maniacal relish to the role of Carnegie, and Mila Kunis effectively impressionable - if completely out of place - as Solara. Supporting turns by the likes of Jennifer Beals, Michael Gambon and Tom Waits are also good. But these, as you might have guessed, are not the film's problems...

Where it is most let down is in the strength of the writing. While the story's ostensible religiosity is neatly overturned both by the suggestion that the cataclysmic "Flash" may have been caused by a religious war (resulting in mass Bible-burning) as well as by Carnegie's desire to use religion as a "weapon" to control the minds of the masses, it never really sinks its teeth into the challenging dichotomy between personal faith and inherited creed that it evokes. Beyond this, the dialogue is fairly lifeless, and the plot has barely enough complexity to satisfy the mind of the average 5 year old. Although the Hughes brothers (From Hell being their last directorial outing) generally do a decent job working within such confines, the pacing can also occasionally slow to a trickle. (Watching a man traverse a scorched expanse of land, for example, can be faintly intriguing... Once. And for about 30 seconds.)
Nevertheless, the slack is usually picked up by the film's many crisp and well-executed action sequences. Along with cinematographer Don Burgess's strikingly desaturated palette and the story's focus on the lone anti-hero whose troubled mind represents "A flower of light in a field of darkness" (that's Johnny Cash, alas, not screenwriter Gary Whitta), one feels encouraged to overlook the The Book Of Eli's shortcomings and instead view it as a straight-up neo-western. Cast in such a light, the simplicity and slowness of the plot immediately seem more palatable (The Searchers, anyone?), as the tableau-esque compositions, together with an abundance of close-ups (think the finale of The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, or indeed, anything Sergio Leone) both succeed in bringing character to the fore.

The shame of the thing is that it proves difficult to consistently maintain such a perspective. The ending, for example, seems stubbornly to draw attention to the film's weaker thematic elements, while a significant third act twist will be thought of by some as doing the same, and by others (of the "western/this sh*t's awesome" persuasion) as unrepentantly cool. The movie is nothing if not a mixed bag, and ultimately, I'm left feeling the same towards it as I recall most of my high school teachers feeling towards me: "Although he has a decent, if superficial, grasp of the material - even displaying the odd moment of brilliance - Zak's output is shaky at best. He fails to tease out the deeper meaning of the text because he's usually too busy playing the clown." Except that part about the clown.   

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