Quite appropriately for a movie about the apocalypse, it gets most interesting at the end. But to explain why would spoil it, and most of the time it’s already too close to spoiling itself. For starters: Yes, here is another goddamned movie about the apocalypse, and with a god-saved hero to boot.
At this moment in history, it’s hard to know what the average American moviegoer — Christian or otherwise — will make of an autodidactic bible scholar who happens also to be handy with shotgun and machete. But it must matter that he’s played by Denzel Washington, here reminding us again of his great gift for dignifying anything. (He is also among “The Book of Eli”’s producers.) Like many loner movie heroes before him, Washington’s saintly badass is laconic, deadly and blessed — sort of a post-rapture update of Clint Eastwood’s “Pale Rider.” And less pale, of course. Or he’s an archly comic-booky version of Cormac McCarthy’s archly literary paladin in “The Road”: just one man traversing a ruined America on foot, with the Lord’s mysterious ways on his mind.
Guided by the voice of the Almighty in his head, or at least by the voice of the reverend Al Green in his headphones (not a bad runner-up), Washington’s so-called “Walker,” also known as “Eli,” carries with him the last known copy of the King James Bible, which he reads every day. All he knows for sure is that he’s headed west, and that he must keep the book safe until he gets there.
Eventually he’ll admit that his quest might have made him too obsessed with protecting the thing to fully live by what he’s learned from it — namely, the importance of a charitable attitude toward his fellow man. (We can assume he’s learned the mechanics of beheadings and such from some other source.) But first he meets an aspiring dictator who wants to take the bible away from him. And in another nice touch of apocalyptic appropriateness, that person is played by Gary Oldman.
“It’s meant to be shared with others,” Oldman says of the holy tome. “It’s meant to be spread.” And there’s something icky in his articulation of that last word, as if he’s talking about an infection. No surprise, really, to find him later insisting to one of his henchman that “It’s not just a fuckin’ book! It’s a weapon!”
Maybe so. The reason bibles are so rare in these bleak days of lawlessness and sepia-toned slow motion, we learn, is that they’re associated with whatever human folly led to the big sky-shredding cataclysm in the first place — and have since been rooted out for eradication by many of that zero hour’s survivors. It’s just too bad that once this heavy seed of cultural and religious criticism has been planted, the film makes haste to disown it, retreating into the conventional theatrics of its prophet-versus-false-prophet throwdown.
But at least screenwriter Gary Whitta and directors Allen & Albert Hughes don’t seem at all daunted by the many extant precedents for their samurai-western schtick. Boldly, earnestly, they press forward (and backward, movie-history-wise), dishing up something like “Mad Max” as imagined by Sergio Leone with a goth-industrial update of the music from “Blade Runner.” A supporting role for Mila Kunis, way out of her element, seems only marginally more considered than the afterthought cameos by humanity’s other sacred texts. (Oh look, they do have the Koran. Hope the guy who walked that one across the hinterland had an easier trip.) When last the Hughes brothers brought out a movie, it was “From Hell,” but before branding them simonists and banishing them back there, we should consider the deficiency implied by that film having been released almost a whole decade ago.
As for the end of this one, “most interesting” should not imply satisfying or commendable. How about enjoyably preposterous? It involves Malcolm McDowell, after all — and a transformation, of sorts, which when all is said and done just goes to show the difference between the big reveal and the Revelation.