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Denzel Washington is a prophet carrying The Word in The Book of Eli's blasted future: He ain't looking for trouble, but he ain't running away from it, neither.

David Lee/© 2009 Alcon Film Fund, LLC. All Rights Reserved

2 out of 4 stars


The Book of Eli

  • Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
  • Written by Gary Whitta
  • Starring Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis
  • Classification: PG

Really, it's just another prophet-in-the-wilderness tale - not nearly as bad as those trailers would suggest, yet neither will your soul run any risk of enlightenment. The wilderness, in this case, is awfully familiar. Once again, the ashen landscape is postapocalyptic: 31 years have passed since "the Flash" and the future ain't looking bright. So we're back on The Road , but this time Eli's coming - better hide your heart and, while you're at it, put your brain on hold, the easier to enjoy the action-filled sermon to come.

Being an American prophet, Eli (Denzel Washington) is heading west to keep the dream alive, a lucky thing since most everything around him is dead or dying - skeletal cars with their skeleton drivers, scant food, scarce water, the usual molten mess. Since the usual disembodied voice has spoken, Eli carries with him the Word, the last extant copy of the Good Book. Apparently, all the other Bibles were burned, since "some people said the book was responsible for the war in the first place." Yes, the Word is only as good as its interpreters. But we're in safe hands with Eli, a true Christian among the cannibals.

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Onward, then, our Christian soldier marches, neither looking for trouble nor running from it. However, the script borrows trouble aplenty, largely from those B-westerns it starts to imitate. Surrounded by outlaws, the prophet/cowboy smites them with his trusty weapon. Then he wanders into the frightened town ruled by the corrupt despot (Gary Oldman) and his posse. More smiting - in the saloon, on the dusty main drag at high noon. Outnumbered, bucking the odds, Eli seems indestructible. Is he, is Denzel, more than a mere man?

As we're pondering that metaphysical conundrum, the pretty gal makes her appearance. Like all the young folks after the Flash, Solara (Mila Kunis) is illiterate. Still, upon hearing the 23rd Psalm, she's knocked out by its prose stylings and soon is walking with the prophet through the valley of the shadow of death. Yea, he comforts her, even as evil gives chase.

Meanwhile, the directors - Allen and Albert Hughes - are striving to comfort us, hoping to elevate this stuff to the status of myth. Unfortunately, they mainly resort to name-calling: Eli for starters; the despot is called Carnegie, 'cause he's got a vast library of books; then, an aging couple introduce themselves, presidentially, as George and Martha. Nice try, but no sale. Besides, there's only one Washington who counts here.

Indeed, the star imparts to this role more dignity than it deserves. And again, he's up against ferocious odds. After Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction , the whole quoting-scripture-and-smiting routine is hard to rescue from its own vale of black humour and pop irony. So, to keep this from descending into inadvertent camp, Denzel has to do some very heavy lifting, and give him credit. The actor may not redeem his character, but he saves Eli from a fate worse than death - the mocking snickers of a non-believing audience.

Nope, I didn't snicker once (okay, maybe a little at the end). I even found some enjoyment early on, as always taking a perverse delight in the sheer "survivorman" pragmatics of these postapocalyptic yarns, all that hunting and gathering and bartering. Here, where water is precious, personal hygiene is a major problem. So guess what's fetching a fat price on the free market? KFC handiwipes. Now there's a product placement that will have the old Colonel spinning in his southern grave - forget that damn chicken, boys, but stock up on them wipes.

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About the Author
Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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