Blu-Ray Review: ‘The Book of Eli’ Offers Solid B-Movie Entertainment

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CHICAGO – If there’s one cinematic trope more tired and overused than the apocalypse, it’s the Bible-quoting badass. Everyone from Jules Winnfield to the Boondock Saints have memorably demonstrated that nothing justifies mass-murder quite like the word of the Lord. Yet Eli, the mysterious hero of the Hughes Brothers’ long-awaited thriller, isn’t just armed with a few scriptural quotes. He’s got the whole book.

Despite its mediocre premise, “The Book of Eli” is a surprisingly engaging bit of nonsense, proving star Denzel Washington’s uncanny ability of making any material seem more credible than it actually is. The script by Gary Whitta is pure B-movie hokum, but directors Albert and Allen Hughes inject it with the same invention and audacity they brought to their great 1993 debut feature, “Menace II Society.” Though it’s been nearly a decade since their last film, the Hughes Brothers are still a filmmaking duo to be reckoned with. Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 3.0/5.0

Speaking softly while carrying a big machete, Eli wanders through a familiar post-apocalyptic landscape, beautifully lensed by “Cast Away” cinematographer Don Burgess. With a brown and gray color palette that transforms a cloudy sky into a celestial oil spill, “Eli” offers an ideal example of how to utilize the intense clarity provided by the RED camera, which has been wasted in frenzied dreck such as “Gamer.” This is one of the best-looking Blu-Rays in recent memory, making “The Road” look all the more murky by comparison.

Eli possesses what may be the last remaining copy of the King James Bible. He’s on a mission to “deliver it West,” though his divine compass holds no more specificity than that. Thus, Eli is forced to go on a Job-like journey where he encounters power-hungry goons like Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who rules over a town that looks like the set from “High Noon” after a nuclear holocaust. Oldman is good fun to watch in his sniveling scenery-chewing mode, and it must’ve been his own private joke to have his aspiring dictator be reading a book labeled “Mussolini” when he’s first introduced.

Denzel Washington stars in the Hughes Brothers’ thriller The Book of Eli.
Denzel Washington stars in the Hughes Brothers’ thriller The Book of Eli.
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

The closest cinematic relative to this picture is Alfonso Cuaron’s vastly superior “Children of Men,” which also centered on a man protecting a sacred MacGuffin (in that case, it was the last remaining child on Earth). Some of the film’s extended sequences seem to be emulating Cuaron’s brilliant use of long takes, though the Hughes Brothers resort to flashier (and more distracting) techniques for combining separate shots. A major misstep was the casting of Mila Kunis as Eli’s companion; her impeccable skin sticks out like a sore thumb, and she merely seems to be treading water in scenes with her formidable co-stars. The film also would’ve benefitted from giving more screen time to Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon as a cuddly couple of cannibals straight out of “Grey Gardens.” Though the film only halfway realizes the potential of its promising themes concerning the healing and destructive power of spirituality, halfway is about two halves further than most mainstream entertainments get these days.

The Book of Eli was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 15th, 2010.
The Book of Eli was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on June 15th, 2010.
Photo credit: Warner Home Video

“The Book of Eli” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.4:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French and Spanish audio tracks, and includes a DVD and digital copy of the film. Though the “Maximum Movie Mode Survival Guide” promises to teach viewers “how to survive in a post-apocalyptic world,” it’s just a standard picture-in-picture commentary that mainly provides links to the disc’s 34 minutes of Focus Point featurettes. With his brother absent, Allen Hughes is on hand to discuss his meticulous planning for the film’s design, evoking a graphic novel while still aiming for realism (comic artists Chris Weston and Tommy Lee Edwards were hired to storyboard the film). He also claims that Washington is the first actor to fight multiple actors in a single extended take since Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon.” Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada demonstrates his rapid-fire choreography in rehearsal footage, and there’s a pause-worthy 20-second shot of a fighter performing 39 martial arts moves (each helpfully labeled) while defeating a crowd of enemies. The similarities to “Kill Bill”’s fight scenes are all the more conspicuous when it’s revealed that Eli’s machete was originally going to be a samurai sword. There’s some fascinating deconstructions of key action scenes, as well as several striking matte paintings.

Among the disc’s wealth of extras is a 13-minute featurette where alleged experts speculate about mankind’s survival in the wake of an environmental catastrophe (it concludes with a rose-colored championing of altruism). Many behind-the-scenes tidbits are rehashed in another 17-minute featurette, while a brief animated short tells Carnegie’s clichéd backstory in the form of graphic novel stills. There’s also some super-brief deleted scenes, and a conversation between Allen Hughes and the film’s composer, Nine Inch Nails album producer Atticus Ross.

‘The Book of Eli’ is released by Warner Home Video and stars Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals, Evan Jones, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon and Malcolm McDowell. It was written by Gary Whitta and directed by Albert Hughes & Allen Hughes. It was released on June 15th, 2010. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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