Movie Review: The Book of Eli

It might be easier to list the movies that the Hughes brothers' The Book of Eli calls to mind than to describe the movie itself: films such as The Road Warrior, Waterworld, The Road, and even A Boy and His Dog, which the Hugheses reference with an unlikely poster on a wall of a grimy makeshift hotel room.

If you don't have the idea yet, throw in a bunch of westerns about the lone man on a mission in a dangerous frontier. Or - well, really, it's pointless to offer comparisons or examples because this is a movie that has few ideas of its own, except for one large and highly suspect central one.

Working from a script by gamer journalist Gary Whitta (and who thought that would ever be a job description?), the Hugheses enjoy the great good fortune of having Denzel Washington, an actor who makes his own gravitas, in the central role. His calm, troubled demeanor and sense of humor carry this film a lot farther than it might otherwise go, in terms of keeping your disbelief in check. After a while, however, even the great Denzel must surrender to his own humanity - in this case, his inability to make spiritualist silliness seem more serious than it can be.

He plays the title character, Eli, though with his large, wraparound shades and scruffy beard, he looks like the late Isaac Hayes in his Black Moses days - at least in the close-ups that don't include Washington's hairline. Eli is a man on a mission, walking west across America, trying to survive in a hostile, post-nuclear environment whose only survivors seem too closely acquainted with cannibalism for anyone's taste.

Eli's mission is to deliver a book - the good book, as it were, the only surviving Bible 30 years after the nuclear holocaust - to some unspecified place in the west. Though he is given no back-story, Eli obviously has skills: He's a martial artist with a scythe-like sword and a crack shot with both pistol and bow-and-arrow. (Indeed, the stylized opening sequence features him carefully shooting a cat with an arrow, the better to eat it without having to pick bits of lead from the carcass.)

But Eli runs into trouble when he walks into a hellish little town somewhere in the southwest, which is overseen by a boss named Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman. The ham-handed symbolism of the name aside, Oldman is one of a bevy of Brits having fun with American accents in this film, a line-up that includes Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour and even Malcolm McDowell who, for a change, isn't playing a bad guy with crazy eyes.

Is Eli a supernatural figure? Is he invulnerable to the wounds the flesh is heir to? Is he divinely graced? A figure of heavenly inspiration? Yes and no. And that's about as clear as the Hughes brothers want to make it.