The biggest mystery about The Book of Eli is why they didn't just openly market it as a Christian film. I mean, Christians aren't exactly a minority in this country and this is easily the most overtly religious film I've seen in theaters since 2004's The Passion of the Christ: the hero gets his goodliness from his faith and his strength from Jesus, he gives hope to the hopeless by teaching them to pray, protecting the last copy of the Bible is portrayed as tantamount to saving the human race, and there are lengthy discussions about said Bible and quoted passages from it. Sure, the explosions and gun battles and rape and cannibalism would have elderly churchgoers stumbling shellshocked towards the exit (although I don't think that crowd goes to the movies much anyway), but it could have made a killing with the young hip Christians.
But if what The Book of Eli is is religious, what it isn't is science fiction. Some websites absentmindedly shuffled it into that genre because of its post-apocalyptic settings, but outside of a few extremely vague references to an event called "the flash" that destroyed the world a few decades back there's no sci-fi trappings to be found at all. Don't expect any robots — hell, don't even expect any internet. If my memory serves, the only technology that appears in the entire film is guns, a water pump, a printing press, the protagonist's iPod, and a few cars (how exactly they get gasoline in this desolate wasteland would have to be the film's second biggest mystery).
What The Book of Eli is is a Western in the Man With No Name mold that happens to have automatic weaponry. Denzel Washington is a man wandering the lawless desert on a mysterious mission who rolls into a frontier town ruled by vile gangleader Carnegie, played by the always awesome Gary Oldman. If you've watched the old Eastwood Westerns you know how this goes: our protagonist isn't exactly a nice guy, in fact, he's kind of an asshole with no qualms about killing, but our villain who runs the town is still way worse so the two gotta end up in conflict. Expect standoffs and shootouts and tense confrontations! Just with an extra religious gloss to it this time, as Oldman desperately wants the holy book that Denzel carries as means to marshall the easily-led masses and expand his empire across the broken world.
Taken as a Western, the film is a flawed but mildly entertaining venture that achieves its modest success almost entirely on the strength of its two leads. You don't have to obsessively follow cinema to know that Denzel and Gary Oldman both rule and it's entertaining simply to watch them go up against each other. The supporting cast doesn't fare as well, particularly a spectacularly miscast Mila Kunis as a town girl who joins Denzel on his sojourn and fails to the point of it actually being funny any time she's asked to be badass. There's no hyper-speed cutting or shakeycam but there's no innovative or incredibly compelling action scenes either; the bloodshed is at its most entertaining whenever Denzel busts out his machete. The cinematography of the destroyed world is good but visually I preferred the silvery wasteland of Terminator Salvation.
All in all I don't think I'll ever watch The Book of Eli again, but I'd recommend giving it a rental if you're into post-apocalyptic settings, Westerns, or Christianity. I'm not interested in religion but I still marginally enjoyed the film as a violent shoot 'em up Wild West flick with cool stars enough that I didn't feel I'd totally wasted my time when the credits rolled round. Also, between Terminator Salvation, 9, 2012, The Road, and now The Book of Eli, I gotta ask, what's the deal with all the apocalypse, Hollywood? Lighten the fuck up!
2 Stars out of 5