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01/15/2010

Eli's coming, hide your hate now

We've seen action-adventures with heart before.  The "Star Wars" sagas, for instance.

"The Book of Eli" packs an additional element:  soul.  Not the rock 'n' roll kind, either.  We're talking spiritual depth I've never seen in such a brutally violent near-future setting.

Denzel Washington is well-suited to play the soft-spoken Eli, a man (or something more) who walks among the falling ash of a seared, post-war Earth with a single purpose; to stay on his mysterious path west.

Washington, an Oscar winner as the ruthlessly corrupt cop in "Training Day" (2001), is equally at home on both sides of the integrity fence.  That helps one of the finest actors of his generation fit so effortlessly behind the sunglasses as a man (or perhaps more) who tries to avoid trouble, but is lightning fast with a machete when he's unable to avoid conflict.

That happens a lot in "The Book of Eli." It unfolds in a post-apocalyptic world of survivors and killers 30 years after "The War," or "the flash" as Eli sometimes refers to a conflict so brutal "that it blew a hole in the sky and the sun came down and burned everything up."

An enigmatic lone warrior, Eli's not unlike "Mad Max," the Australian futuristic wasteland warrior that launched Mel Gibson's career in 1979.  And there are similarities to Viggo Mortensen's character simply called Man in "The Road," which is currently on screen in some areas.

Eli is not looking for revenge as Mad Max was or even to protect a frightened son like Mortensen does in "The Road," however  He's got a book in his backpack that inspired this 30-year trek west.  

When the loner in sunglasses happens upon a lawless town ruled by a despot who controls the thieves, murderers and possibly worse who hang out in his saloon, Eli meets Carnegie (Gary Oldman), a man as determined to get his hands on "the book" as Eli is to keep it.

Oldman, who appeared as Bob Cratchit, Marley and Tiny Tim in the recent  rehash of "A Christmas Carol," is an exceptional actor like Washington. And Oldman absolutely convinces as an egomaniac with power.

Despite the pleadings of his blind wife (Jennifer Beals), Carnegie sends his own step-daughter Solara (Mila Kunis of "Extract" and Jackie on "That '70s Show" on TV) into Eli's room to, shall we say, "charm" him into revealing all the tight-lipped mysterious traveler knows.

"The Book of Eli," while routine at times as the latest entry in the post-apocalyptic genre, also ventures where I didn't expect it to go.  That's a good sign.

Solidly directed by filmmaking twins Allen and Albert Hughes, who have built a reputation on gritty urban dramas like "Dead Presidents" and "Menace II Society," "The Book of Eli" opens up a new chapter in grisly action-adventures.

Here we have murder and corruption, for sure, but with an effective spiritual side that offers at least some hope of redemptive healing.

For lack of a better term, let's call it New Age Old Testament mayhem.

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