I’m Gary F’n Oldman, you’ll eat what I tell you to eat!

Theatrical Release Date: 01/15/2009
Directors: Albert & Allen Hughes
Cast: Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Jennifer Beals, Ray Stevenson, Tom Waits, Frances de la Tour, Michael Gambon

The Hughes Brothers came onto the directing scene with the powerful “Menace II Society” and seemed to be cruising along fine with “Dead Presidents” and “American Pimp”. Then came “From Hell”, a Jack The Ripper tale that boasted an impressive cast but couldn’t cut warm butter. Since that time, they seemed to drop off the entertainment map, with two TV credits to their names (though the American reboot of the British “Touching Evil” series is seriously under appreciated).

Now, nearly nine years after “From Hell” seemed to mark the end of their feature film career, The Hughes Brothers come back with “The Book of Eli”. A post-apocalyptic tale of a man (Denzel Washington) in possession of a book that a local despot (Gary Oldman) will do anything to acquire, the film shows off a clear sense of style and vision (We’ll get to whose style and vision later).

Now, I am fully cognizant that January is usually a mixture of Oscar contenders getting wider release and general dreck major studios have little faith in. Sure, there’s the odd kids or horror film thrown in, but that’s just good counter programming – and when a film like “Norbit” can dominate the January box office, you sort of see how vast a wasteland the month can be.

However, “The Book of Eli” is a bit of a mystery to me. Now, I’m not saying this would win any awards but I was not expecting to come out of it as pleasantly surprised. It delivers a little bit of action, some good acting and raises the type of ‘what makes up humanity’ questions films of this genre should. There’s even a Malcolm McDowell sighting and a re-teaming of “Harry Potter” actors Gary Oldman, Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour – if that’s your thing.

Back to the story’s core, Denzel delivers another good performance, though aside from his fighting exploits there isn’t much here we haven’t seen from him before. However, Gary Oldman really steals the show here, playing a villain again after spending so much time as Harry Potter’s Godfather and Batman’s favorite cop. Every time Oldman is on-screen, the energy level picks up and his brilliance shines through. His quiet genius seethes from every pore and it’s this cerebral viciousness that makes for such a fantastic bad guy.

Now, this brings me to one of my bigger issues with “The Book of Eli”. While I liked the film, trying to decide whether I did because of the film itself or the connections I made with other cinematic examples was difficult to reconcile. Oldman’s performance has more than a few shades of his dirty cop from “The Professional”, there’s a rowboat scene that seems lifted straight from “Children of Men“, so much of the film echoes other post apocalyptic fare like “Mad Max” or “The Road” (though there’s no way the Hughes Brothers could have avoided that one) and the last scene of the film reminded me of “Blade Trinity” (no, I’m not kidding). As such, I took a second bite at this apple and re-watched the film.

And although I still made those same connections, I will say that they didn’t shake my appreciation for the film. While the rowboat scene is the most egregious, perhaps it was an homage and I’ll think of it as such. The rest are pretty much unavoidable because of the genre. Water’s going to be the most important commodity in a time where the world goes to pot. Thugs will rise up and take what they want from those too weak to fight back and smart, charismatic wannabe tyrants will find a way to exploit those thugs to be their brawn. Films like these are just built to bring about a messiah character who galvanizes the meek to rise up against their oppressors and right the wrongs.

Another element I wanted to revisit was the volume level of the score. When the film began, I wondered if the projectionist had cranked up the sound too high but as the film unfolds, it’s clear that the Hughes Brothers decided to go for an atmospheric quality to the film, both in its sound design and in some of the dreamlike camera shots, tooling with the frame rate on CGI cloud movement (since I doubt any shot of the sky wasn’t digitally altered) and the like.

This was very reminiscent of some of the key aesthetic choices of the “Touching Evil” TV series and really worked … though I can’t say for certain how much of my enjoyment is thinking back to the series versus the film at hand. The visual look of the film was a standout, essentially a whole other character unto itself. Also, the lighting and cinematography, most notably in the opening scene, give an otherworldly sheen to the production that serves the story quite well. It’s in many of the scenes without dialogue that the true beauty comes through.

“The Book of Eli”, although another post apocalyptic tale in a growingly crowded genre landscape, is artistic as well as entertaining and as such earns a 3.5 out of 5. This type of story has been done many times before but Washington and Oldman, in combination with The Hughes Brothers’ spin on things, make this one of the few January releases from a major studio worth the price of admission in recent years.