Road wea­rier

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards I For The New Mex­i­can

The Book of Eli, an­other New Mex­ico-as-waste­land movie, rated R, Re­gal Sta­dium 14, 2 chiles

The Book of Eli is a post-apoc­a­lyp­ticWestern; it’s an evan­gel­i­cal tract; it’s a road movie; it’s a mar­tial-arts movie; it’s a dis­as­ter movie; it’s a graphic novel. It’s equal parts The Road and The Robe, A Fist­ful of Dol­lars and Fist of Fury. It’s Mad Max meets Left Be­hind in Dead­wood. It oc­cu­pies a philo­soph­i­cal land­scape some­where be­tween Mel Gib­son and Hoot Gib­son. Hav­ing said that, it’s fast­paced, with some en­ter­tain­ing per­for­mances, stylish vi­su­als, and plenty of action. It’s also pon­der­ously righ­teous and wildly silly, with leaps of logic to try the pa­tience of a saint.

But as its hero Eli (Den­zelWash­ing­ton) solemnly ob­serves, “It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s faith.” It is the movie’s most telling line, words that direc­tors Al­bert and Allen Hughes have cho­sen to live by.

Eli is a sur­vivor of “the flash.” We’re not quite sure what it was, but it in­volved a war of some sort, and it hap­pened more than 30 years ago. Since then, Eli has been walk­ing west, di­rected by voices in his head, through an ashen, des­o­late, car-and-corpses­trewn coun­try­side (much of the film was shot in New Mex­ico, of course) that picks up where The Road left off. We’re not sure where Eli started from, but as­sum­ing it was the East Coast, this puts him on a pace slightly worse than a thou­sand miles a decade. But for rea­sons that will be­come clear at the end, he may not have an unerring sense of di­rec­tion (we see him dou­ble back at least once, and re-en­counter the same woman with a bro­ken shop­ping cart). He car­ries a back­pack crammed with trea­sures and weapons. Chief among the lat­ter is a knife of sur­pass­ing sharp­ness, a blade that can cut through sinew and bone with the flick of a wrist. Para­mount among the for­mer, val­ued above even his hoarded sup­ply of moist tow­elettes, is a Bi­ble, the last one on Earth.

Eli prac­tices a mus­cu­lar sort of Chris­tian­ity, not the wimpy, old­fash­ioned, turn-the-other-cheek va­ri­ety. He’s not looking for a fight — in­deed, he will watch from hid­ing, mut­ter­ing to him­self “stay on the path; it’s not your con­cern” as a man is robbed and killed and his wife raped by a gang of ma­raud­ers. But he can be pushed just so far, and no fur­ther. “You lay that hand on me again and you will not get it back,” he warns a threat­en­ing tough. And he means it.

Next to the Good Book, Eli’s other most trea­sured pos­ses­sion is an iPod loaded with old disco tunes, which he has man­aged to keep run­ning through the decades. When its bat­tery runs down, he is forced to brave the phys­i­cal and moral dan­gers of a town. While a snuf­fling Tom Waits recharges the bat­tery at the gen­eral store, Eli re­con­noi­ters.

The town is the fief­dom of a typ­i­cal old West­ern-movie over­lord, the phi­lan­throp­i­cally named Carnegie (Gary Old­man). Carnegie is one of those diminu­tive, smil­ingly vi­cious psy­chopaths who use their wits to cow into sub­mis­sion brutish mus­cle and gor­geous women. Among those are his mis­tress, the beau­ti­ful, blind Clau­dia (Jen­nifer Beals), and her lovely daugh­ter So­lara (Mila Ku­nis), pos­si­bly the only two clean peo­ple left on Earth.

Carnegie rules the town, but he wants to rule the world. To do this, he needs a book. What book, you ask? No, not the bi­og­ra­phy of Mus­solini he is read­ing when we meet him, or even the pa­per­back of The Da Vinci Code that is among the cache of read­ing ma­te­rial that his thugs dump on his desk from their lat­est haul.

No, it’s the book that Eli has been haul­ing west and read­ing ev­ery day: the world’s last Bi­ble. If he wants the book that badly, this Carnegie must be a pi­ous sort, you’re think­ing. No. The book can be a force for good or for evil. “I grew up with it,” Carnegie tells Eli. They are among the few in this gray new world old enough to re­mem­ber the old green one. “I know its power. If you read it, so do you. That’s why they burned them all af­ter the war.” Armed with the Bi­ble, Carnegie be­lieves he can con­trol the pop­u­lace. “It’s a weapon,” he says.

Once Carnegie dis­cov­ers that Eli has the last sur­viv­ing Bi­ble, the game is on, and it won’t be over till one or the other wins. The con­test reaches its cli­max at the way­side home of a cou­ple of charm­ing old can­ni­bals named Ge­orge and Martha (Michael Gam­bon and Frances de la Tour), who give new mean­ing to the game of “Get the Guest.” Af­ter that the story con­tin­ues west (Eli reaches the coast so quickly that he can’t have been more than a few miles away) to a shock­ing twist of a de­noue­ment, a bit of flim-flam­mery that will make you al­most, but not quite, want to go back and see the movie again to de­cide whether it was play­ing fair all along.

For this film, the Hughes broth­ers stepped be­hind the cam­era for the first time since 2001’s Johnny Depp-driven Jack the Rip­per story, From Hell. The screen­play is by Gary Whitta, a for­mer ed­i­tor of PC Gamer mag­a­zine, and the video-game prove­nance of this story is ap­par­ent in the spec­tac­u­lar, gory vi­su­als. The movie should ap­peal to that mar­ket— and to those audiences who be­lieve in the use of vi­o­lence to spread God’s word.

That 2070s show: Mila Ku­nis and Den­zel Wash­ing­ton

Men­ace

II post-apoc­a­lyp­tic so­ci­ety: Gary Old­man

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