The Road Not Taken

bookofeli The Road Not Taken The Book of Eli
Running time 118 minutes
Written by Gary Whitta
Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes
Starring  Denzel Washington,
Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis

Until the final 15 minutes of the apocalyptic sci-fi thriller The Book of Eli, when so many weird circumstances and unexplained narrative arcs come together in a head-on collision with logic, you don’t have to think much. All you need to do in order to enjoy this pulse-racing, throat-gripping, two-hour Twilight Zone special is sit back, avoid retching from the excessive violence and try to forget how much it all resembles The Road. Even after the action leads to a final series of revelations that render everything else preposterous, you will still feel the adrenaline. Boredom is not an option.

Like The Road, the setting is a burned-out, futuristic landscape after an unexplained holocaust called the “final war” has destroyed the planet. The survivors have divided into camps—villains and victims, cannibals and people who will do anything for the few remaining drops of water. Denzel Washington plays Eli, a spiritual man with über-human survival techniques who, like Viggo Mortensen, hits the road on the way to the California coast with a sacred book in his backpack that contains the secrets to jump-start civilization and save the planet. I can tell you without fear of spoiling anything that Eli’s book is the last Holy Bible in existence, and it’s in great demand by a lot of monsters and maniacs scary and mean enough to make the vampires in Daybreakers look like kindergarten tots nursing all-day suckers. Leader of the pack is Gary Oldman, a juicy actor who once played Dracula himself. He specializes in freaks, and the one he plays here is to be avoided vigorously.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we follow Eli as he walks across what’s left of America, passing motorcycle gangs raping innocent women and crossing bleak forests littered with cadavers. A cat leaps from nowhere and eats the flesh from a corpse. Whap! Eli shoots a Viking arrow through the emaciated animal’s heart and feasts on the cat himself, sharing one tiny thigh bone with a visiting rat. Music from his iPod, the only link to the world he used to know, ends when its battery goes dead. Lost without his iPod, Eli grips a very long Ali Baba dagger with a very sharp blade used for chopping off hands and heads, and cautiously enters a ghost town hiding the magic book that promises to cause nothing but trouble. Songwriter Tom Waits may be the worst singer who ever lived, but he’s pretty convincing here playing a mangy storekeeper who knows how to repair iPods. While he’s waiting, Eli is confronted by the inevitable arch-villain and town dictator, Carnegie (Oldman), who rules a den of thieves, gunmen and perverts out of Mad Max. Eli is a solitary, peace-loving warrior on a mission from a higher power—to save the Bible, find the place where the book belongs and spread the word of God. Carnegie is a bloodthirsty fiend on a different kind of mission—to steal the book at any cost and use it to control the minds and souls of what’s left of the world. Eli finds an ally in Carnegie’s stepdaughter, Solara (Mila Kunis), who becomes committed to Eli’s conviction that salvation, redemption and hope await them in—get ready—San Francisco! Seeking refuge in the rotting shack of a married couple who turn out to be cannibals (overacted with scenery-chewing glee by veteran British actors Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour) ends in a massacre. Eli is wounded and the Bible lands in the hands of the desperate Carnegie, but this movie isn’t over yet. What Carnegie discovers inside the Bible is a nice twist, but where Eli ends his journey, and how he re-creates the Bible from memory with the help of a new prophet (Malcolm McDowell, as a cross between Gutenberg, Einstein and Father Christmas) and the world’s only printing press … Well, it has to be seen to be believed. They save the biggest surprise for last, and that’s when you may think you’ve been had. You will be right. But The Book of Eli, with leftover sets from The Road, exaggerated visual effects and over-the-moon performances, still holds interest. This is to be expected, since it is the work of the controversial Hughes brothers, Allen and Albert, a pair of twins who dripped the epic Jack the Ripper movie From Hell with blood so gory it wouldn’t wear off. In the same gothic tradition, The Book of Eli is imaginative and hair-raising, but with enough spirituality to please a Holy Roller convention.

rreed@observer.com