The Book of Eli (R)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Quite appropriately for a movie about the apocalypse, The Book of Eli gets most interesting at the end. But to explain why would be to spoil it, and most of the time it's already too close to spoiling itself. For starters: Yes, it is another goddamned movie about the apocalypse, and with a god-saved hero to boot.
At this moment in history, it's hard to know what the average American Christian moviegoer will make of an autodidactic Bible scholar who happens to be lethal with a shotgun and a machete. But it must matter that he's played by Denzel Washington, who here reminds us again of his great gift for dignifying almost anything. (He is also among The Book of Eli's producers.)
Like many loner movie heroes before him, Washington's saintly badass is laconic, deadly and blessed — sort of a post-rapture update of Clint Eastwood's Pale Rider. Or an archly comic-booky version of Cormac McCarthy's archly literary protagonist in The Road: just one man traversing a ruined America on foot, with the Lord's mysterious ways on his mind.
Guided by the voice of the Almighty in his head, or at least by the voice of the reverend Al Green in his headphones (not at all a bad runner-up), Washington's so-called "Walker," also known as "Eli," carries with him the last known copy of the King James Bible, and he reads it every day. All he knows is that he's headed west, and that he must keep the book safe until he gets there. Eventually he meets an aspiring dictator who wants to take it away from him. And in another nice touch of apocalyptic appropriateness, that person is played by Gary Oldman.
"It's meant to be shared with others," Oldman says of the holy tome. "It's meant to be spread." And there's something icky in his pronunciation of that last word, which makes it sound like he's talking about an infection. No surprise, really, that he'll later be observed insisting to one of his henchmen that "It's not just a fuckin' book! It's a weapon!"
Maybe so. The reason Bibles are so rare in these bleak days of lawlessness, cannibalism and sepia-toned slow motion, we learn, is that they're associated with whatever led to the sky-shredding cataclysm in the first place, and therefore have been rooted out and destroyed by many of its survivors. It's just too bad that once this heavy seed of cultural and religious criticism has been planted, the film makes haste to disown it, retreating into the conventional theatrics of its prophet-versus-false-prophet throwdown.
But at least screenwriter Gary Whitta and directors Allen and Albert Hughes don't seem at all daunted by the many precedents for their samurai-Western schtick. Earnestly, they press forward (and backward, movie-history-wise), dishing up something like Mad Max as imagined by Sergio Leone with a goth-industrial update of the musical atmosphere from Blade Runner. (And who knows what Mila Kunis, so precipitously far out of her element, is even doing in there?)
As for the end, "most interesting" should not imply satisfying or commendable. How about enjoyably preposterous? Hey, it involves Malcolm McDowell — and a transformation, of sorts, which just goes to show the difference between the big reveal and the Revelation.