Sunday, April 04, 2010
Book of Eli (Albert and Allan Hughes, 2009)
Albert and Allan Hughes' Book of Eli (2009) starts off interestingly enough--Denzel Washington as an enigmatic Mad Max figure, walking the desolate roads of post-apocalyptic America. Actually it's more than interesting--it's brilliant. Tall, laconic figure in trench coat and shades, crossing the length of a two-lane blacktop. How much more elemental, and intriguing, and evocative of introverted self-sufficiency can you get?
The Hughes Brothers actually sustain it, for a time. We first see Eli (Washington) lying quietly in wait for the chance to harpoon some cat creature--the camera moves from the cat (actually it resembles a rabid mutant chihuahua) across the silent forest floor to Eli and his ready crossbow. The tension, the mystery of the image is considerable, released only by the twang! of the crossbow.
Later Eli confronts some potential ambushers and the Hughes cut to a long shot of Eli under a bridge, in deep shadow, dispatching his attackers with a pair of long knives, or short swords (they resemble the Moro barung or barong, with holes punched out in the blade to streamline the cut--I suspect a Moro design, since Washington was trained in martial arts fighting techniques by Filipino-American master Dan Inosanto). It's a lovely image, the camera locked down while it gazes at Washington spinning and slashing his assailants--the static set-up and its implication of a pitiless observer watching combatants live or die remind one of Kurosawa's Sanshiro Sugata (1943) and of Park Chan-Wook's legendary corridor fight sequence in Oldboy (2003).
Even later we see Eli watching as a group of marauders attack a couple, whispering to himself that he will nto get involved. Again, an intriguing sidelight on the character--he may have a working system of moral beliefs, but he will not allow them to screw up his chances for survival. There are priorities, and a mission he must accomplish.
The movie pretty much tosses this sense of reserve and mystery by the roadside when Eli arrives at a small town; Carnegie (a scruffy Gary Oldman) rules this town with his brutal band of thugs. Eli confronts the thugs in a bar and manages to kill them all, and immediately one can see a problem: up front and personal, in broad daylight and not deep shadow the Hughes Brothers' action is frankly a mess--shots too close in for you to tell apart, shaky-cam incoherence, and just enough Inosanto-inspired knife action that you want to see matters clearly and are frustrated that you can't.
Not that I don't want to see Oldman's Carnegie--far from it. Oldman can always be depended on to be the scruffiest, most repulsive character in the room, and he does not disappoint here; his Carnegie is a hedonist, an intellectual, a tyrant, and each facet of his character grate against each other in all kinds of irritating ways. His intellectualism marks him as smarter than (and more contemptuous of) the rest, his tyrannical leadership style inspires terror in his minions, and his hedonism means he has a taste for helplessly beautiful women that (it's suggested) he enjoys in an unspecified kinky manner (What can you do with a blind mistress? Nothing appropriate that can be mentioned here, for starters). His appetites focus the movie's previously rambling plot into a laser-sharp point: he is looking for a book, he will not stop until he finds it, he will terrorize innocents including women in all sort of unpleasant ways. Unbeknownst to Carnegie that book, of course, happens to sit inside Eli's dusty backpack, and he's just as determined to defend the book as Carnegie is to possess it.
Welcome developments, at the same time unwelcome. What is that book--National Register of Army Depots? Nuclear Weapons Made Easy? Psychic Powers for Dummies? What kind of knowledge can that book posses that Carnegie should obsess about it? Turns out it's no great secret--it's the Bible, King James version, and while I admire that particular edition for the grandeur of its language, I can barely see the relevance to postapocalyptic America. This Carnegie fellow is nuts, I'm beginning to think, and Eli's just as nuts for thinking the same way. The Hughes Brothers may believe otherwise but for me the stakes have dropped precipitously.
At a certain point guns are pulled out, which is both welcome and unwelcome in a Hughes Brothers film--as they've shown in both Menace II Society (1993) and Dead Presidents (1995), the Hughes know guns, are more than familiar with the use of them, and know how to stage and shoot extended battles involving their deployment (that's why I wondered about Eli's two short swords--judging from their action sequences in the less-than-successful From Hell (2001), they aren't quite there yet with regards to blades). Unfortunately when guns are fired the bullets--well, either Carnegie's dumb enough to hire nearsighted morons for gunmen, or Eli enjoys some kind of low-level aura that deflects bullets. He just stands there looking around while Carnegie's men fire away to little effect.
What was that about? Do the Hughes Brothers mean to give Eli a more-than-mystical quality? If they mean to, they should take it all the way and perhaps take a moment to explain or prepare for it a bit beforehand; if they don't (which is hard to believe), then what on earth were they thinking?
The movie recovers in fits and starts--Michael Gambon puts in an memorable appearance along with Frances de la Tour as a pair of charming cannibals, Tom Waits is nicely grizzled as a store owner, and Malcolm McDowell pops up near the end as a relatively benign museum curator (that's where that book belongs in this world, actually--in a museum). The finale involves a series of revelations that don't really add to the story (let's just say the Hughes Brothers are unlike Hitchcock a bigger fan of surprises over suspense), and elements of science-fiction classics as diverse as Isaac Asimov's The Stars, Like Dust and Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (a great book by the way--one of the best). Whatever; The Book of Eli actually isn't that bad, and any movie that champions the value of literature should be recommended, but I for one sure wish it was better.
First published in Businessworld, 3.18.10