Saturday, September 4, 2010

Walk the Line

In Hollywood in 2010, it's safe to say that if you're headlining films that receive world-wide theater release, you're probably doing pretty well for yourself. If you're Denzel Washington, however, it must be somewhat disappointing to no longer command the same respect and box office draw you once owned. Seriously, despite being one of the most talented performers in the industry, his inability to pick quality projects has seemingly derailed his promising career. Not that awards and box office rankings are the epitome of career success, but they are a good source of the facts, and the facts are that not only has Washington not had a number one box office movie since 2007's American Gangster, he hasn't even been nominated for an Academy Award since winning his Best Actor Oscar for Training Day, all the way back in 2001. It's no secret that Man on Fire and The Manchurian Candidate were not especially well-received films, yet at least Denzel has never let his talent dim, his ability to command any scene he's in almost as inspiring as it was during his golden era.
Denzel hits on hard times

The Book of Eli came out early this year with almost no fanfare and in a bad spot, opening during the time when everyone was still rushing out to see Avatar and it seemed like no other movie mattered. It finished number two opening weekend, but fell quickly after that, not helped by mixed reviews and Avatar fever. It was destined to lie among the forgotten Denzel movies of the past few years. That's a shame, because I have it now ranked as my new #3 film of 2010, as shocking a placement for you as it was for me to find out how enjoyable this movie actually was, and not just resting on the laurels of it's lead actor's talents.

The breathtaking visuals are half the excellence in the film
That's not to say Denzel doesn't bring his A-Game. Throughout this story of a solitary man trekking westward through the nuclear wastelands that are all that's left of a post-apocalyptic North America, it's a one-man show through nearly the first third of the film, and Washington never loses the audience's attention whenever he's in the scene. It's just that he's not the only great thing about this movie. It's obvious from the opening scene of a slowly-dissolving forest that the look and atmosphere of this film is unlike many you may have seen; the dark gray clouds and seemingly odd sunlight that shines on the world, you feel as if this world is alien, something never seen before by human eyes. The directing is also surprisingly adept, especially coming from sibling directors Allen and Albert Hughes, who hadn't directed a major motion picture since 2001's From Hell. Taking the original story by versatile screenwriter Gary Whitta, the directors have managed to create a whole new world, populate it with survivors of a great war who barely manage to cling to their humanity in the face of unspeakable adversity.

Nothing screams "unfriendly" like a trenchcoat
The movie, as I said before, has Denzel's Eli traveling across what's left of the United States, traversing damaged highways, roads and cities, all the while showing adeptness at hunting, pathfinding and, when beset upon by bandits, personal defense. We soon discover that he is carrying a very precious artifact, an actual copy of the King James Bible, possibly the last in existence. After the bombs and the apocalypse, we learn, many of the survivors of these atrocities blamed the war on religion and sought to purge the holy book, utilizing book burnings and plain old fashioned desecration. Eli believes himself to be on a mission from God, meant to deliver this book safely to it's destination somewhere to the west. On the way, he encounters a small town ruled by the ruthless Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who by chance has been sending raiders and miscreants out into the wastes to bring back books, searching for just the kind of book that Eli is carrying in his pack. It's only a matter of time before paths cross...

Warning! Gratuitous Violence in Effect!

I was very excited to see a movie done in this post-apocalyptic setting. It's such a fascinating idea, not that we'll eventually bomb ourselves into the stone age, but the recovery from that traumatic experience. How would humanity as a whole react to this kind of setback? The innocent and just, hunted and assaulted by those anarchists who would take advantage of the new world. Irradiated drinking water. vast stretches of land where trees, buildings and cities that once stood are no more. Destroyed infrastructure. And, perhaps most unsettling, the lack of wild animals to hunt or soil to grow leading many down the path to cannibalism. I've always found it an interesting, if somewhat terrifying prospect, that humanity may one day head down this dark road. Or maybe I'm just overly excited at the prospect of playing Fallout: New Vegas by year's end, but either way, the setting was a big deal for me. Thankfully, no specifics are given to explain exactly why the war happened; We're simply plopped down here like so many survivors of the end times, and that works for me.

He still kinda looks like Count Dracula
The other reason I loved this movie so much is that finally - FINALLY - I've seen a movie where I actually thought the bad guy had proper brains, motive, smarts, and muscle to make himself a real danger to the protagonist, even advantages at times. Gary Oldman can chew scenery like a theatrical rottweiler, but the best things about his performance are what the script has his character doing, rather than what he brings to the part. Oldman'sapocalyptia, while Eli wants to bring the book west because he believes doing this will help spread God's word. That the movie perfectly walks the line between faith being used as a salve and a weapon is amazing, which even works for me, who follows no faith to speak of.
The odds are decidedly against Eli, alone but for his wits and skills, and occasionally he appears to be blessed, where he'll take a bullet to the back without getting hurt or escaping from a locked cell with an armed guard watching the door, or many such things. These seem a little out there on the oddity scale, as not all of it can be explained away rationally as an alternative to the idea of divine intervention. In this way the story gets a little far-fetched, but fortunately, don't hurt the flow of the story at all, simply makes it a little too fantastical to completely believe. The other problem I had was with the small town's ample resources. The place seems to somehow have plenty of fresh water and fuel, and while the water is explained satisfactorily, can anyone explain to me how proper fuel can exist in this type of place so that the bad guys who want to drive big trucks and motorcycles can do so? I know other movies in this setting have had vehicles that people drive, but unless they use some sort of alternative fuel, I can't believe it's gasoline they're filling their engines with 30 years after the fact.

No, this isn't what it looks like
The acting is mostly excellent, with Washington and Goldman raising the bar of what might have been expected of with a different cast. Jennifer Beals is also excellent as a blind concubine under Carnegie's control. There aren't many large roles in this movie, but plenty of good small roles, and a cast of Ray Stevenson, Michael Gambon, Tom Waits, Frances de la Tour, and Malcolm McDowell all do good jobs with their roles. The only one who could be considered a disappointment is Mila Kunis as Beals's daughter, a slave who ends up following Eli. Kunis has yet to show me any transformation in any of her roles, as they all remind me of Jackie Burkhart from That 70's Show. And she shows no deviation here. She's interesting only because it gives us a hero alongside Eli, but we didn't need that, it was a better David vs. Goliath story without the extra help.

Walking the roads
I never expected to like The Book of Eli as much as I did. It's a shame it was released when it was; if it had been released in the brief time between when Avatar and Inception had been in the theaters, it may have had a chance to do much more at the box office. Still, it hasn't been a total loss. The studio made their money back and then some, and when the movie was released on DVD, it was an excellent seller, meaning it hadn't been completely overlooked. And that's good, since this is a smart, fascinating film that has enough surprises to make you shriek and is smart enough to keep you interested until the final credits. It just goes to show, don't ever underestimate a Denzel Washington film.


brian said...

not to nitpick, but American Gangster was 2007, not 1997.

Gianni said...

Yup, you're absolutely right, I wrote the date down wrong. Thanks, fixed the problem now.