According to “The Book of Eli,” the meek shall not inherit the Earth, not even if the Bible is the key to the Earth's salvation. In this post-apocalyptic tale by brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (“From Hell”), Denzel Washington plays the titular Eli, a wandering prophet toting a rare Bible on a mission from God and crushing anyone who gets in his way. As ill-considered as it is violent, the film's premise appears to be the conviction that contemporary movie audiences are guaranteed to spend money on a holy trinity of religious conspiracy, hot actors and explosions.
Full of well-known but disconnected Biblical passages, “The Book of Eli” is more a collection of contemporary action-movie parts than another take on “The Road,” all tied to a hollow and hypocritical piety. Washington's Eli is a typically reticent, no-BS-taking antihero, a mix of Mel Gibson's Mad Max and Clint Eastwood's gun-slinging Man with No Name whose daily life wouldn't look out of place in “Wanted” or “The Fast and the Furious” anymore than a spaghetti Western.
Eli is up against a maniacal gang leader named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who wants the book Eli is carrying, because they were all thought to have been burned after society crumbled. That a villain would want a powerful text to summon the scattered people of the Earth makes sense, until you consider how much organization it must have taken to destroy all those books in the first place, the Bible being the greatest selling tome of all time. But “Eli” is too busy pretending to be better movies to notice its contradictions.
The one guy who makes perfect sense is Carnegie's top henchman (Ray Stevenson, the hulking soldier from “Rome”), who offers his services for the reward of Solara (Mila Kunis, “That '70s Show”), a fetching damsel whose name bespeaks parents who saw a lot of “Battlestar Galactica” reruns. Looking cute for the apocalypse but out of her depth, Kunis appears lost most of the time while playing Eli's witness and disciple, though it's not her fault the production team dressed her in sexy sportswear and gave her a salon cut. Most of the major and minor characters appear attired from a Diesel outlet and the extras could have been assembled from an armed contingent at the Burning Man festival.
Yet even as an anachronistic action movie “Eli” is as dull and commonplace as it is overly art directed. The instances in which Eli must defend his life and property are more showy than suspenseful, and while the Hughes brothers may have given us visions of stylish malevolence in the past with such movies as “Menace II Society” and the better parts of “From Hell,” they seem to have lost the independent spirit that once marked their work during their own near decade of wandering between films.
“Eli” feels less a foreboding warning about the future of the planet than the future of the multiplex, where blithe indifference to originality and realism will always be a scourge. Eli's sturdy MP3 player, still working three decades after the end of the world, is symbolic for all the wrong reasons, though you might be relieved to know that product placements live on after the end of civilization.
As for Washington, he has squandered his cache of leading-man appeal in yet another role that requires little more than a type. We've come to expect this, as his characters generally fall between the stolid man of principle (“Courage Under Fire,” “Antwone Fisher”) and the stolid man of action (“John Q,” “DAcjAÿ vu”), or, as with Eli, contain a little of both. Even as the movie ironically notes its lead's aging features, the Hughes brothers don't demand much of Washington's talents except a determined gaze and a steady pace. It's possible that every 10th page in the shooting script for “The Book of Eli” reads, “Denzel Washington strides in slow motion across a barren landscape.”
If the Hughes brothers intended Eli to be a mythical figure they've fatally undermined him with B-movie comedy and hackneyed action meant to win over the multiplex. But couldn't it have tried to make some sense at all? If “The Book of Eli” is to be believed, the Bible was impetus to annihilation and the way out of it. More likely, the words in the Good Book warn against cinematic blasphemy such as this. (R) 118 min. HIIII