Welcome back to the apocalypse afterparty. As always, the landscape is blasted and barren and drained of color; and the road that runs through it, littered with long-abandoned vehicles, goes on forever. Traipsing down this lonesome highway is a solitary, dust-crusted figure. He's armed with a shotgun, a pistol and a really big knife. He's also packing ... an iPod? Wait a minute ...
Soon he arrives at a squalid wasteland settlement. This is a place that, while lacking a Thunderdome, is presided over by a fierce chieftain, in this case a character named Carnegie (played not by Tina Turner, but, possibly against his better judgment, by Gary Oldman). Carnegie quickly learns that Eli has a secret: He carries in his backpack what may be the world's last remaining King James Bible. Carnegie has been looking for one of these for a long time: "I know its power!" he crows. (Since we've earlier seen this loon perusing a Mussolini biography, I think we can assume he's a devotee of the Old Testament, as opposed to the New.)
Eli only sticks around town long enough to make the acquaintance of a local sweetie named Solara (Mila Kunis) and a pawnshop owner (Tom Waits) who runs an iPod-charging service on the side. Then he heads back out on the road, pursued by Carnegie and his skuzzy minions, and by sonorous synth-brass soundtrack fanfares that are clearly on loan from Vangelis. Many silly things ensue. At one point, someone regales Eli with a little music, cranking up an ancient Victrola to play what would have to be an extremely rare 78rpm recording of "Ring My Bell," the '70s disco hit. And there's a long, blazing gun battle that prompts us to wonder who, in this world of crippling scarcity, is manufacturing all the ammo flying through the air. Not to mention refining all the gasoline to keep the various trucks and motorcycles gunning along. (These quibbles could as easily be lodged against the old Mad Max movies; given their blithe cartoonishness, though, such objections would seem beside the point.)
A more puzzling question, though, is why Denzel Washington would choose to submerge his natural charisma in a movie like this, playing an emotionally constricted character who expresses himself mainly in stoic fortune-cookie murmurings. The Hughes Brothers, who directed, and Gary Whitta, who wrote the script, have shaped this story as a testament to religious faith -- a bold ambition in a Hollywood project. But they're undone by the sort of overreaching corniness that so often subverts attempts at cinematic uplift. Most woefully, the picture concludes with a plot twist so wildly shameless as to be entirely laughable. It might have wrecked the movie, had there been all that much left to wreck.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Fish Tank," also in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "The Book of Eli."
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