Eli (Washington) is a traveller, trekking westwards across an obliterated America to protect a sacred book. Shotgun on shoulder, sword in sheath, he’s man of prayer and purpose. But a literate townsman (Gary Oldman) wants the book for himself to subvert it to his own power-hungry ends. Amid a landscape of brooding beauty, faith and violence are about to collide.
The Hughes Brothers (From Hell, Touching Evil) invest The Book of Eli with a visual flair and poetic sensibility. More than a futuristic actioner, it’s a quietly-paced and genuinely-felt rumination on the place of faith and scripture. Controversially, it takes the opposite road to The Road which hunkers down on love and sacrifice in the face of meaninglessness. Is religion a blessing or a bane, Eli asks? A friend or a foe?
Contrary to contemporary action movies, The Book of Eli refreshingly stages its sequences in broad daylight and in stuttering slo-motion. Visually stylised it may be, but only to transform the film – like John Woo did and for the same reason – to hint at spiritual realities and other-wordly existence.
Which is not to say The Book of Eli stints on action. It delivers in spades. Not like Mad Max, for visceral effect, nor The Road, to depict the leaden brutality of man’s last gasp. It’s a reluctant, necessary, whip-crack violence. Choreographed, it’s true, with sheen and balletic movement. A fresh spin too on the Eastwood-like image of a death-dealing angel - Washington's Eli is more peaceable, vulnerable and human.
Washington once again grounds things with his easy gravitas. And Mila Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) is appealing as Eli’s accidental follower, displaced from Oldman’s malevolent grip. Quirky cameos from Frances De La Tour and Michael Gambon as gun-toting, not-quite-right homesteaders add to the off-kilter tone.
The big reveal about the book’s identity is, by the end, not so big. But the Hughes Brothers throw in another curveball at the movie’s close which you’ll either swallow or not from what’s gone before. But poetic action films with a spiritual tone don’t come along very often. When they do - and if there as good as this – they’re worth seeing. We live in hope.