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MOVIE REVIEW

The Book of Eli

‘Book of Eli’ goes for bullets over brains

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / January 15, 2010

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‘The Book of Eli’’ is “The Road’’ with twice the plot, four times the ammunition, and half the brains; it’ll probably make 10 times the money. The movie, a post-apocalyptic action-drama, is serious in the style of a portentous comic book: lots of slow-motion attitude punctuated by sped-up mayhem. You can tell it means business because cinematographer Don Burgess has left his palette at home - as is the current fashion, colors have been bleached out of every shot, leaving behind a burnished sepia wasteland. It’s quite beautiful, in a diseased way.

Denzel Washington strides through the film as Eli Walker, generic survivor. He’s walking in the footsteps of all those who’ve come before him - Will Smith in “I Am Legend,’’ Kevin Costner in “The Postman,’’ Mel Gibson in “The Road Warrior,’’ Daniel Day-Lewis in “Nine’’ (wait, wrong disaster). He has a Clint Eastwood man-with-no-name thing going on too, not to mention a little samurai on the side. In an early sequence, a gang of atavistic roadside sleazebags descend on Walker beneath an overpass, intent on robbing and eating him, and the camera pulls back to watch him dispatch them all in silhouetted longshot. It’s a striking sequence, as if Quentin Tarantino had decided to try his hand at shadow puppetry.

If that were all there were to “The Book of Eli,’’ the movie might be good, nasty fun. Walker is toting a book with him, though, and it’s not just any book but THE book, all other King James Bibles having been destroyed in a fit of mob pique after the bombs dropped 30 years ago (taking the Gideons with them, apparently). Why those other Bibles didn’t make it but Walker’s iPod has survived over three decades is a mystery for the ages; at least he gets to chill out to Al Green, which is all the Good Lord some of us need.

“The Book of Eli’’ takes an interesting turn when Walker walks into a frontier town: Suddenly we’re in a post-nuclear western, complete with a goodhearted saloon girl (Mila Kunis), her shady-lady mother (Jennifer Beals), showdowns in the street, and a big bad boss in the person of Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman as if he’d borrowed Daniel Day-Lewis’s John Huston impression from “There Will Be Blood.’’

A shout-out to casting director Mindy Marin, who has stuffed the movie with oddball familiar faces. Fringe benefits include Tom Waits in the Walter Brennan role of the town’s old cuss and Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the “Harry Potter’’ movies) as one half of an elegant survivor couple with suspiciously shaky hands. Toward the end, a chipper Malcolm McDowell shows up in a fright wig, as though Alex the Droog had finally found a purpose in life.

Washington? He’s on poised auto-pilot, sad to say, although some of his line readings bristle with caustic wit. (A revelatory twist toward the end is supposed to explain a lot about Walker; it doesn’t.) “The Book of Eli’’ comes down to a face-off between Walker and Carnegie for possession of the Book, the latter craving a short-term power base and the former wanting to preserve it for future generations.

Preserve what, though? Screenwriter Gary Whitta doesn’t seem to know. Asked what the Book’s gist is, Walker says “Do to others what you’d want them to do to you’’ - which is true enough, but exactly as deep as you’d expect from a movie that combines the continuance of Jesus Christ’s message of universal love with bone-crushing violence and amputated limbs. But, hey: a little something for everyone.

The directors are brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, who made a splash in the early 1990s with gangsta fables “Menace II Society’’ and “Dead Presidents’’ and have struggled to find their footing since. “Eli’’ is their first feature since 2001’s brooding Jack the Ripper mystery “From Hell,’’ and it references other movies and genres without ever quite settling into its own groove. The movie’s certainly watchable - the brothers are born filmmakers - but it’s never quite convinced of itself, and so it never comes close to convincing us. The Hughes put most of their creativity into the action scenes, which crunch and spurt and gurgle with panache. I’m not sure the Book’s message, though, is “Let us spray.’’

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

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THE BOOK OF ELI

Directed by: The Hughes Brothers

Written by: Gary Whitta

Starring: Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals, Tom Waits, Michael Gambon

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 118 minutes

Rated: R (brutal violence

and language)

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