With Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis and Gary Oldman; Directed by The Hughes Brothers; Rated R for some brutal violence and language; 118 minutes
The wunderkinder known as The Hughes Brothers, Allen and Albert, started their careers quite prodigiously in 1993 with the powerful ‘hood drama “Menace II Society” when they were but 20. They beat the dreaded sophomore slump with the competent heist thriller “Dead Presidents” in 1995, and even after a long hiatus, made the 2001 period piece “From Hell” look old hat. Now, however, the decade since has left them rusty, as the post-apocalyptic actioner THE BOOK OF ELI squarely shows.
After a mysterious nuclear exchange wipes out most of the human race, the survivors scramble for the resources that remain…and at any cost. Guided by voices, a mysterious drifter named Eli (Denzel Washington) is on a cross-country mission to bring a mysterious Book to a mysterious place in the West. Potentially preventing his passage are roving rape gangs, Rockwellian cannibals and the power-mad Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the self-appointed mayor of a ragtag town of survivors. Naturally, he wants Eli’s mysterious Book…and at any cost.
The action is unspectacular, recycled “Mad Max” bits done far better in Neil Marshall’s 2008 treat, “Doomsday.” The hand-to-hand sequences are so heavily edited that Washington could be anyone’s grandfather, and still be left standing after the dust and bloody mist settles. Washington’s performance is one-note, like Joan of Arc with Crocodile Dundee’s big knife. Oldman is cheesy ham-on-milquetoast, making his Zorg in Luc Besson’s fan favorite “The Fifth Element” look mellow by comparison. Mila Kunis as the scrappy Sidekick-turned-Follower is just plain miscast, punctuated by the final frame of her all duded-up, “Evil Dead” style, and walking off into a possible sequel.
When “The Flash” burned a hole in the sky, not only did killer UV rays get through, but apparently so did killer ironic clichés. The myth of the super-abled disabled person? Check. The muted, shades-of-beige color palette, right out of a college thesis film? Check. The modern references made for super-Ironic comic effect? Check, and mate. Even the sentiment at the core of the film – the importance of the tradition of storytelling – gets neutered completely when wild-haired laugh-bringer Malcolm McDowell shows up and helps the Brothers Hughes turn the denouement into one big jokey M. Night Shamalamadingdong punch line. It is a climactic rim shot so loud and Ironic that Rod Serling, who shuffled off to his own personal Twilight Zone some 35 years ago, would sit up and ask for his lawyer.•••
Robert Newton is a longtime movie critic and the editor of North Shore Movies. He runs The Cape Ann Community Cinema in Gloucester, and makes novelty records in his spare time.