Thirty years after an atomic war, Eli (Denzel Washington) walks across a ravaged America, guarding his most precious possession a book. Carnegie (Gary Oldman), boss of a small town, wants the book, which he thinks will give him power. When Eli escapes
Traditionally, when a major studio released a big, pompous science fiction film, someone enterprising (usually Roger Corman) got out a leaner, meaner, funnier version of the same idea: Rollerball was trumped by Death Race 2000 and Jurassic Park had less hungry genetically-engineered dinosaurs than Carnosaur. This Hughes Brothers comeback ought to be the Corman version of The Road, but carries over too much of the deadening respectability of the higher-profile picture.
Introduced aiming a home-made bow at a hairless cat he hopes to have for dinner and scavenging for a new pair of walkin’ boots, Denzel Washington makes for a glum hero – he moves at such a steady pace you can actually believe he’s liable to spend thirty whole years walking across America. In the tradition of Mad Max (not to mention Shane or the Man With No Name), Eli just wants to move on peaceably, but keeps running into folks who give him hassle, prompting displays of machete-swishing martial arts which leave circles of dying, dismembered thugs littering the landscape. Also, like every other loner hero in the movies, he runs into a ruthless varmint who wants something from him and attracts helpless womenfolk who need protection.
Luckily, the Brothers hired Gary Oldman to play the tyrant of the wastelands: his canny, squirming, amused baddie lifts what would otherwise be a complete downer enlivened only by bursts of violence and moments of laughable solemnity. In fact, this grey, blasted, muddy wasteland (the whole film seems to have been shot through ash-coloured lenses) is home to a surprising number of eccentric British character actors, suggesting that the Hughes’ still have the UK casting directories they needed for From Hell.
Besides Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as folksy old-time cannibals with an arsenal under the sofa, there’s room for white-maned Malcolm McDowell, taking care of humanity’s cultural heritage like the book-memorisers at the end of Fahrenheit 451.
Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is, though there’s a twist (two, in fact) to come when it’s opened. Playing to the religiosity common in latterday apocalypses (from The Stand to Children of Men via those Left Behind movies), Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac. Denz reads scripture as if he really means it, but the film is happier when Eli’s prayers are rewarded by a gun which magically doesn’t run out of bullets and his waif disciple devastates the baddies’ convoy with a miracle grenade.
Mad Max 2 with Thought for the Day thrown in. Theres some ace post-holocaust action, but you cant help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.