The Book of Eli is not an action movie in the traditional sense. There’s action in the film, well choreographed, beautifully photographed action but that’s not the focus of the film. The film is a meditation on the nature of faith and an excellent samurai/Western mashup. Eli is somber film that spends the majority of its time ruminating on the perils of a society that’s abandoned its faith. More than the lost of technology and creature comforts, the film posits that the lost of religion has driven the world into chaos. You see, Denzel Washington’s Eli is not your average hero. He’s not driven by revenge or a need to bring anyone to justice. He’s a man of deep and abiding faith, on a mission to safely transport the world’s last remaining Bible across a decimated landscape until its contents can be disseminated to the masses once more. Prince of Persia this is not.
The first thing I noticed while watching the film is how much it owes to George Miller’s Mad Max films. It has a very similar post-apocalyptic setting and uses the same battle- over-a-scare-resource plot that the original Max used but the similarities are mostly surface level. Eli doesn’t luxuriate on violence the way that film does. In fact, Eli features some of the most subdued violence I’ve seen in recent years – although there is a disquieting strain of sexual menace in the film. Eli’s dystopian future is an unsubtle one. Along with running water and literacy, women’s rights have also perished from the Earth; men are men and women are property. The film’s traditionalist bent is evident in more than just its sexual politics.
The film’s morality is as black and white as its color palette. Eli is the pious hero, Gary Oldman the bombastic villain. There is no ambiguity in the film. Oldman plainly states he wants Eli’s Bible to control the weak and stupid. There are no secular humanists in this world. This conceptualization, while somewhat narrow minded, is compelling and well executed. The uncomplicated nature of the story gives the film a thrust and clarity of purpose that many modern films lack. This film is more John Ford than Jerry Bruckheimer and it’s all the better for it.
One area in which the film is decidedly untraditional is its racial characterizations. The black hero, white villain paradigm is nothing new but Eli is not the standard African-American action hero. He is not ostentatious or sexual, nor is he particularly angry or funny. He is stoic, ultra competent, and deadly. And only draws his weapon to when he intends to kill someone. He’s got more in common with Zatoichi than John Shaft. This unconventional take on cinematic tropes is refreshing.
Eli isn’t the best film of the year, but it might be one the most interesting. With its traditional narrative and outlook, the film stands apart from the current crop of hallow, uninspired action flicks. Despite its regressive sensibilities, it’s one of the most engaging films of this decade.
All of the releases mentioned here have links to their respective Amazon pages but you can also visit Cleveland area Blockbusters, Family Videos, and redboxes for these and other new releases.
Mario blogs regularly at A Polemic Killer Room.