The Book of Eli is a bleak, post-apocalyptic tale that's surprisingly effective as both an action movie and drama. It has some lapses in plausibility and the main character lacks a clear motivation, but ultimately the grim setting, solid performances and nicely choreographed action sequences win you over.
Thankfully, co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) also have Denzel Washington, who's so charismatic he could eat a bag of chips for two hours and it would be interesting. Washington plays Eli, a lone warrior in possession of a rare book as he travels through a desolate, destroyed America on his way to the West Coast. Washington's performance speaks volumes to the importance of movie stars: We don't know much about Eli, but Washington makes us care about and like him, and because we so easily root for Eli, the movie works.
On his journey, Eli stops in a small town run by a self-appointed despot named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who covets Eli's book and will stop at nothing to get it. "It's happened before, it'll happen again," Carnegie says about the book's ability to unite people and give him unlimited power as their leader. To get the book, Carnegie sends Solara, (Mila Kunis), the daughter of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals), to seduce Eli, but what Carnegie doesn't realize is that Eli has a higher power guiding him.
Screenwriter Gary Whitta makes the religious overtones obvious, but never is the message of Christianity beaten over our heads. This is always a story about survival and the preservation of humanity, both good and bad. Nonetheless, logical flaws abound: If Eli needs to get to the West Coast so desperately that he's been walking for 30 years, why doesn't he take one of the abandoned cars/motorcycles and drive there? Everyone else seems to have an inexplicable amount of gas. Why wouldn't he?
The story is also a bit slow developing: Much of the first 15 minutes is Eli against large backdrops of scorched earth, which suitably provides a sense of isolation but also gets tiresome rather quickly. Whitta and the Hughes Brothers also get into trouble when they introduce supernatural elements, which break the movie's self-imposed rules of reality for scenes that are too hard to believe.
Still, the action is nicely done, particularly a shootout at the home of a couple played by Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. And although the ending is a real stretch, the idea of mankind surviving in dire circumstances seems both poignant and ironic right now, especially given that technology has made life more convenient than ever before.