NEW YORK - More contemplative and lyrical than advertised,
the first big action movie of 2010 incorporates religious
faith and Judeo-Christian principles to a surprising degree.
Directed by twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes, "The Book
of Eli" (Warner Bros.) prompts the question whether, assuming
a minimum level of respect, the attempt to integrate religion
and Scripture into a mass-appeal film is by itself laudable.
"The Book of Eli" exhibits sufficient reverence for the
Bible, and yet its coarse language and violence - though not
excessive when compared to many films of this ilk - could
fuel the opinion that Hollywood should avoid all sacred
texts. It does not endorse aggression as a means to
While dabbing them with morbid humor, the Hughes brothers
don't prolong the fight sequences, nor are the proceedings
saturated in blood. The mayhem is balanced by frequent
meditative passages. Moreover, next to the bleak depictions
of humankind's future that abound at the multiplex (last
year's adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel "The Road"
springs to mind) their vision is decidedly optimistic.
Centering on a prophetic hero driven by faith and hope, "The
Book of Eli" has more in common with the 2007 Will Smith
vehicle "I Am Legend."
The character of Eli, portrayed by the always-convincing
Denzel Washington, descends from the strong, mysterious
strangers Clint Eastwood played in the so-called spaghetti
Westerns of Sergio Leone, as well as from the spiritually
potent protagonists in numerous Asian martial-arts films. In
the near future, following a climactic disaster that
precipitated "the last war," Eli has spent 30 years
traversing the blighted landscape of the western United
States carrying the only extant copy of The King James Bible.
Books were burned and libraries pillaged in the aftermath of
the vaguely described apocalypse. Now, with survival a
Herculean challenge, he skillfully defends himself and his
precious cargo using a machete, bow-and-arrow, and gun. His
belief that he's shielded by God appears to be well-founded
after he arrives at a dusty town run by Carnegie (Gary
Oldman), whose marauding minions are charged with bringing
him every book they can find.
Carnegie's power derives from controlling the water supply,
but he's convinced his dominion over the surviving population
will grow if he wields the words of the Bible. His blind,
common-law wife, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), has a daughter,
Solara (Mila Kunis), who eventually hits the road with Eli,
becoming a disciple of sorts.
The production draws on everything from the dichromatic look
of a John Ford Western to the camerawork and staging
techniques deployed by action directors such as John Woo.
Logic is not one of its strengths, but there's plenty of
visual texture and narrative substance to offset doubts.
How authentically Christian is Eli's religiosity? Not only
does he safeguard and transport the Bible, he reads it daily
and quotes from it often. He also prays - most notably at the
end of the film, when he gives thanks to God and confesses
the sins he committed as the Good Book's chosen courier. The
most explicit expression of Christian doctrine comes when Eli
tells Solara what he's learned from his in-depth study of
Scripture, namely, "Do more for others than you do for
In the same scene, he voices what might be a dig at those
inclined to read the Bible too literally, clinging to the
words while ignoring the spirit. "The Book of Eli" presents a
parallel dilemma. It's possible to excuse the movie's more
brutal moments by placing them in a broader context. It's
also possible to focus exclusively on its objectionable
qualities and dismiss the project out of hand.
The film contains intermittent strong violence including gun-
and swordplay and a killing intended to be merciful, much
rough language, some crude language, and brief sexual
innuendo. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting
classification is L - limited adult audience, films whose
problematic content many adults would find troubling. The
Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -
restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult
McCarthy is a guest reviewer for the U.S. Conference of
Catholic Bishops' Office for Film & Broadcasting. More
reviews are available online at www.usccb.org/movies.