THE BOOK OF ELI isn't Black Mad Max Gon' Cut Yo' Ass Up: The Movie. That's what the trailers are selling, and sure, it is set in a post-nuclear wasteland—but what's onscreen is a bona fide western. And not a post-western western like Unforgiven that's concerned with deconstructing the form, but a middle-of-the-road, mid-'60s western content to amble through the dust, with occasional bursts of violence punctuating long scenes of stoic wincing. It's a sort of cinematic mix tape, with influences and homages synthesized into a patchwork whole. As cinematic mash-ups go, directors the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, From Hell) are the Jazzy Jeff to Tarantino's Dust Brothers; smoother, detached, less inclined to make the beats their own, satisfied just to mix the hits together.
Denzel Washington plays A Jesus with No Name—the owner of the last King James Bible on Earth. (He looks kinda like a young Isaac Hayes, if Truck Turner was a Bedouin who lived at REI.) While on a cross-country mission from God to give his Bible a right home, he runs afoul of Gary Oldman and his gang of Yukmouth henchmen running a barter town. Oldman is Evil Henry Fonda by way of Burgess Meredith, with a dash of Zorg, his bad guy from The Fifth Element, thrown in—he's a greasy, pockmarked opportunist who recognizes the potential of the Bible as a means to rule the blinded, cannibalistic hordes of humanity left on Earth.
But Denzel isn't going to let Zorg get that Bible, so he shoots, stabs, and stoically squints his way through set-piece rehashes of Children of Men, The Bourne Supremacy, and Bad Boys II until his journey comes to an unexpected end at a national landmark I'd have never guessed was God's first choice for the rebirth of religion. I'd also never have guessed that a movie almost entirely about the power of the Christian faith would open with Denzel Washington murdering and roasting a hairless cat. But he makes up for it later by shooting a rapist in the dick with a bow and arrow, so I guess it balances out.
Eli is somber, silly, and mostly empty, and its heavy-handed message about faith's importance is undercut by lazy performances and uninspiring dialogue. It's good to see the Hughes Brothers back in their director's chairs, I suppose—I just wish they had picked a script worthy of their abilities. To damn The Book of Eli with faint praise: At least it's not The Postman.