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The Book of Eli

The month of the B movie.

12:00 AM, Jan 15, 2010 • By SONNY BUNCH
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It’s often said that January is a cinematic wasteland, and for good reason: The awards season art house releases were pumped out the month prior in order to gain eligibility for the Oscars; kids are headed back to school after a holiday break, limiting box office potential and dampening studio enthusiasm for releasing anything of note; short days lead people to stay home, doing more damage to receipts.

The Book of Eli

But the past few Januaries have seen an interesting trend: It’s becoming the month of the well-crafted B movie. Consider last year’s surprise hit, Taken. Starring a respectable actor (Liam Neeson), a tried-and-true premise (a father must rescue his daughter), and stunning (if silly) action sequences, Taken was a hit with audiences and received grudging respect from critics.

The year before saw Cloverfield ride an imaginative concept--a Godzilla-like movie from the perspective of a handheld camera on the ground while New York City is destroyed--and superior special effects work to a big splash at the Cineplex.

This year’s first month, however, has seen a mother lode of B movies get released. Last week’s Daybreakers wedded an interesting premise--what if vampires took over the world and humans neared extinction--with impressive effects and a solid cast (Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and Sam Neill all starred) for a movie that was better than it had any right to be. Legion, coming next week, looks to do the same: An army of angels has been sent by God to destroy humanity, with only Dennis Quaid and Paul Bettany standing against them.
This week, however, debuts the crown jewel of the B movie landscape: Denzel Washington’s Book of Eli.

It has all the hallmarks of a B movie. Set in a post-nuclear war scarred landscape, Eli (Washington) travels westward, searching for a city that God has told him exists and to which he must venture in order to deliver the last remaining Bible. Eli is not to be trifled with, wielding a sword that will cut off a villain’s head with one slice and martial arts prowess that makes him virtually unstoppable.

Eli isn’t the only one who wants the Bible, however: Carnegie (Gary Oldman) runs one of the few remaining organized outposts with an iron fist, dispensing water when he feels like it and only to those who swear loyalty. His vision for the future includes cowing the easily brainwashed masses with passages from the Good Book--“It’s a weapon!” he screams, explaining the power contained within.

And that’s really all you need to know: expert fighter wants to protect book; evil madman wants to take it away and exploit his followers. Pretty simple.

The Book of Eli delivers on its promise of sure-fisted action while maintaining a wry sense of humor; think of this as The Road if re-imagined by the Wachowski Brothers. The landscape is all grays and browns, punctuated only by the occasional flash of a muzzle or acrobatic karate flip.

While this is far from a perfect movie--there are a number of plot holes and at least one glaring flaw in the continuity; the twist ending is also exceptionally silly--it is an interesting meditation on faith and justice in a world without law, as well as a near-perfect delivery device for hand-to-hand combat. The additions of Oldman and Washington are also key, as they provide instant gravitas to any proceedings. 

If this is what January holds for moviegoers headed forward, we should all feel lucky.

Sonny Bunch blogs about culture and politics at Conventional Folly.

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