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LOS ANGELES-In a post-apocalyptic landscape, a man walks alone down an empty road. With the ruins of past civilization all around him, he is forced to fight for survival, both against the cruel and unforgiving terrain and against the lawless and violent desperation of his fellow man.
Sure, we've seen this movie before, but in The Book of Eli there's a difference. Our lone traveler, the Eli of the title (Denzel Washington), isn't on a journey to personal safety. He's on a mission from God, to carry the last surviving copy of a King James Bible west, to a place where it will be safe, and from which its message can spread.
It's a harsh world Eli walks through. A war (origins largely forgotten) ripped a hole in the atmosphere, allowing the sun's rays to scorch almost all life off the planet. Eli and other survivors wear dark goggles to protect their eyes and scavenge endlessly for water (the planet's most valuable commodity). Thieves, killers, and cannibals roam through barren wastelands that have few animals and no plants. (Eli seems to live on a diet of cats.)
The plot is classic simplicity: Eli arrives at a town and meets its ruler, a ruthless gangster named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man who realizes the significance of Eli's book-for Carnegie, like Eli, is a rare remaining reader. Part Mussolini, part Brigham Young, Carnegie wants to use the Bible to establish a religion with himself as patriarch, the better to consolidate his power and spread his influence to new territories. Carnegie tries to take the Bible by force, Eli resists in a flurry of blood and bullets, and the chase is set.
There's not much more to the story. The Book of Eli garnered an R rating for "some brutal violence and language," and while the language mostly comes from Eli's enemies, he isn't afraid to dish out the brutal violence by using guns, a bow and arrow, a razor-sharp machete, and a dizzying array of martial arts maneuvers to gut, dismember, impale, and blast his opponents to kingdom come. Directors Allen and Albert Hughes lovingly capture in HD every bone shard and blood spatter.
In short, The Book of Eli is really about only two things-blood and the Bible. It delivers on the quantity of blood, with the Hughes brothers providing so many bloody set pieces with slow motion and ear-popping sound that they blend together into a forgettable blur. What's missing is creativity: Except for one fight sequence filmed entirely in silhouette, The Book of Eli believes that more is always more, and suffers for it.
On the spiritual side, Christians used to seeing their faith portrayed as either a joke or a superstitious curiosity will be relieved to find Eli's faith dealt with respectfully and the Bible itself seen as a missing cornerstone of society that is worth cherishing. But the movie undermines itself by refusing to take any chances beyond that, and it settles for a universalistic ending that saps the film of any specific meaning.
When other critics and I interviewed Denzel Washington (one of the film's co-producers) on Jan. 9, he said, "We can get caught up in religion. I'm not so big on that word. . . . Fundamentally, all [scriptures] say 'God is love.' That to me is the fundamental message." Washington should be credited for his sincerity, but The Book of Eli, soaked in stylish gore, never provides enough depth to justify its excesses.