The Hughes Brothers | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
The directors of From Hell (what did they do for nine years? Struggle to find work perhaps) helm the tale of Denzel Washington being a sunglasses-wearing loner mofo in a post-apocalyptic America. I really enjoyed it… for maybe 50 minutes, before it gradually slid away, ultimately degenerating to a Christianity circle jerk ending.
I warn you now, this review contains spoilers, because I don’t care if I ruin the crap bits for you. Indeed, I’d say less “ruin” and more “prepare”.
Much like the film, let’s start with the good stuff. It has a slow, almost elegiac pace early on, punctuated by bursts of violence and action. This section is very good. Then it begins to slip into more typical action blockbuster territory. A fake-single-take shoot-out might’ve seemed virtuoso filmmaking in the right film, but here it seems like director willy-waggling in preference to serving the mood and tone thus far created. Same goes for other independently cool things that follow, like the explosive destruction of a truck.
Ironically, one of the earlier good action sequences (a bar brawl… to sell it short!) is included in a beautifully-choreographed single-take form in the deleted & alternate scenes. That should’ve been left in the film. The final version isn’t bad — the Hughes brothers use a variety of static and wide shots to lens all the film’s fights in a way that reminds you that all handheld close-up shaky-jumpy super-fast-cut modern action sequences are inferior to an old-style well-staged, well-shot sequence — but if they’d had the restraint not to intercut some sequence-extending close-ups they would have had a massively more memorable sequence.
The music is by Atticus Ross, which was interesting because I’d thought it was reminiscent of The Social Network. So that’s nice.
There are nice, subtle CG effects (I presume) for much of the film, making the world brown-grey and bleak with green-tinged clouds… but all that is ditched for the digitally stitched together ‘single take’ gunfight and, even more so, a vision of a desolate San Francisco during the closing minutes. It’s decent enough in itself — I’ve seen worse — but like, say, the ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, it’s jarring and awkward because it doesn’t fit with the tone and style established elsewhere.
A bit like Mila Kunis, who is kinda fine but also an acting weak link. Washington and Gary Oldman (especially) are as great as ever. After years of Harry Potter, Batman and recently Tinker Tailor, it’s quite nice to see Oldman back as a villain! He knows how to pitch it perfectly, and while the lack of out-and-out crazy means this one isn’t as memorable as Leon’s Stansfield (well, who is?), it fits the film like a glove. It can’t withstand the blockbusterised let’s-go-get-’em second half, but then not much can. Certainly not the directors’ skills. The oft-underrated Ray Stevenson even offers a cut-above-average lead henchman figure. But there’s something about Kunis… something too present-day and preppy for someone who’s supposed to have been born and raised in a deeply post-apocalyptic back-of-beyond world. She’s nowhere near rough enough.
Late on the film pulls out surprise appearances from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Their roles aren’t even close to needing thesps of such calibre though — they appear fleetingly, the actors underused. Particularly Gambon, who really has nothing to do except fire a gun. I know it’s usually a joke to comment that a usually-better cast member must have needed the money, but that’s the only reason I can imagine he’s here.
Worst of all is a pat ending, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in various ways. They really destroyed every Bible? He really memorised all of it? He wasn’t blind all along, surely? Because you assume he is and then no one says so you think maybe you’ve read it wrong but then it’s meant to be a twist that he’s blind — what?! Why is that facility on Alcatraz? Why have they just been collecting for 30 years? For 30 years?! I could go on.
As well as being religiousified to extremes, these attempts at giving surprising twists just don’t wash. To quote Kim Newman in Empire,
Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is…
Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac.
So, so true. This must be why American reviewers seem to have loved the film, but our more secular nature sees it as Just Daft. Thank God for that.
Newman concludes that “you can’t help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.” I couldn’t have put it better. Eli starts off with the potential for an arty 5; slips slightly to a solid 4 when the standard post-apocalyptic trope of a gang fighting for local power comes in to play; unsteadies that 4 with an increasingly atonal second half; and quite frankly borders a 1 with its sickening ending.
I land on a generous 3, because anything less would be unfair to the good stuff it achieves early on. What a shame it couldn’t continue in that vein.
The Book of Eli featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.