Warner Bros. | Starring Denzel Washington, Mila Kunis, Gary Oldman, Malcolm McDowell, Michal Gambon, Jennifer Beals | Rated R
Denzel Washington has long-since convinced movie audiences that onscreen he’s one of the baddest, most icy-hearted tough guys to roam the borderline between good and evil in Hollywood morality tales.
None are as “bad” (in the “first-rate” sense) at being vengeful as his Creasy in Man on Fire (2004) or as good at being cold and unfeeling as his Alonzo Harris in Training Day (2001).
Now, in his latest film, The Book of Eli, which opened Friday, none can match the determination of Eli, a mysterious and terrifying emissary of hope and justice.
Eli drifts across the postwar, apocalyptic dustbowl of western America like a storm cloud, with a dark and menacing side that strikes as quickly as lightning on those who oppose him. He’s headed somewhere, but even he doesn’t know where. He’s been dispatched by a voice—God’s, he says—and charged with delivering the only existing copy of the Bible to a place where it can flourish, safe from those who seek to stamp it out or use it for their own end.
Walking “by faith and not by sight”—believing he is being guided by heaven—he trudges onward while bearing a John the Baptist-style mission as a man sent by God, not to do his own will, but the will of the One who sent him.
Except with Eli, unlike with John, if you oppose him, he’ll take your head off (literally).
Eli is a blend of holy man, bodyguard (to Solara, played by Mila Kunis), knight-with-a-charge and Akido-style warrior who needs no one’s help when he raises his sword and with ferocity vanquishes his opposition with instantly lethal strokes.
All around him society is trying to reboot itself after a past war that “tore a hole in the atmosphere” and burned up everybody and everything on the surface. At the center of the action are elements familiar in many good vs. evil plots:
- a slummy Wild West-style town
- a local crime boss (Gary Oldman as Carnegie) who rules with an iron fist
- ill treatment of outsiders that borders on racism, Old South-style—the type that uses the Bible to justify its illness of heart and soul.
Cinematically, Eli bears similarities to Road Warrior, Last Man Standing, Blade Runner or other films that fight moral conflicts on the grimy turf of societies tormented by evil.
However, in The Book of Eli, unlike in those movies, the Bible is arguably the most prominent character in the film—even more so than Eli himself, since his role is to be its servant and caretaker. Washington is perfect for delivering the “supporting role” for the Bible, not only because of his acting prowess but also because of his faith. He is a Christian who has long attended West Angeles Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal congregation pastored by Bishop Charles Blake.
In the film, we see the Bible revered not just as a source of moral teaching but also as a literary masterpiece, as well as a source for intellectual enlightenment and cultural renaissance. How good it is to see in a movie, for once, God’s Word being defended and portrayed as having a message with heroic rather than shameful qualities.
Yet it is perhaps at this crossroads—where the Bible is defended—that the film takes a wrong turn. The Bible says God sent His Son to save men’s lives, not to destroy them. But as a defender of God’s truth, Eli is a killer. His defense of the Word of God is more like that of the Crusaders or radical Islamists. He butchers those do who do “evil” to their fellow man or attack his holy mission.
Perhaps, for Christians, the film better serves as a conversation starter about the importance of the Bible spiritually and culturally rather than a valid biblical allegory. The Book of Eli has loads of potential for discussions about what it has cost people throughout history to take the Bible—or more literally, its message—to tribes, villages, nations, cities or street corners where people have never read it or heard about it.
But if you want to embrace it as a “Christian” allegory, you’ll need to be ready to defend its hawkish implication: that killing is a justifiable side effect of spreading and preserving the Word of God.
Content Watch: Rated R for some brutal violence and language. There are two scenes of violent treatment of women and numerous frightening or intense scenes.