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The Book of Eli

Book of Eli, the ambitious, thought-provoking new thriller from brothers Albert and Allen Hughes (From Hell, Dead Presidents), is in many ways an anomaly in modern Hollywood. It's a post-apocalyptic story that's neither a remake nor an adaptation; its dystopian future is entirely devoid of zombies or vampires; and its core message, spiked with heavy amounts of faith and religion, borders on evangelical. Oh, and it's absurdly violent, too. How this movie got made, I'll never know.

The film is set approximately thirty years after a catastrophic war has decimated the planet, leaving its surface charred and inhospitable to the lucky few who managed to survive. A handful of dirty, decrepit, debauched cities host the last remnants of civilization; in between them, gangs of crazed cannibals, distinguishable by traits similar to those of meth addicts (shaky hands, bad skin, missing teeth, bizarre fashion sense, etc.), roam the bleak, unforgiving landscape, preying upon those foolish enough to travel alone.

Out of this infinite desert emerges a pious, solitary badass, Eli (Denzel Washington), wielding a vicious machete and carrying a rare book which, if placed in the right hands, could hold the key to civilization's redemption. But in the greedy paws of unscrupulous folks like Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the tyrant of a lawless frontier town, the book can also be a powerful tool for subjugating the ignorant masses. Which is why Carnegie declares a veritable fatwa on Eli's ass when he learns of his precious cargo, forcing the peace-loving missionary to brandish his blade in the service of the Lord.

Whatever their own religious beliefs, the Hughes brothers should get on their knees and thank God for Denzel, who almost singlehandedly makes Book of Eli's hyper-stylized, incongruous mixture of B-movie splatter and high-minded spiritual hokum palpable. Together with Oldman, the film's other fine lead, he imbues the often preposterous plot with just enough credibility to keep it afloat. Seriously, other than Denzel, who else could solemnly recite Psalm 23 in one scene, then go and carve up — literally — a handful of henchmen in the next, without eliciting howls of laughter from a movie audience? The only other actor who immediately comes to mind is a pre-meltdown Mel Gibson. Maybe.

But even a miracle worker like Denzel can't prevent the wreckage wrought by Mila Kunis, a likable enough actress who is disastrously miscast in the role of Solara, a rough-hewn hooker-slave who eventually becomes Eli's disciple. With her perfect complexion, shrill intonation and Valley Girl cadence, Kunis feels glaringly out of place in Book of Eli's coarse, brutal futureworld — and she can't hope to measure up to the likes of titans Washington and Oldman. rated this film 3 stars.