Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Book of Denzel

I must admit two things about this outstanding Post-apocalypse Sci-Fi thriller from the Hughes Brothers: 1) I had seen it before I most recently re-watched, and 2) I had it in my Amazon Watchlist for like four years. Wow.

What is not to like? The film is a master class in cinema craftsmanship from the top to the bottom. Of course we know the Hughes Bros. can cook, given the first-rate From Hell with Johnny Depp, and other entries. But they really rise to the occasion here. I watched The Book of Eli and scratched my head thinking, 'this must have come from a graphic novel or something.' But no, it is an original screenplay, albeit one rich in apocalyptic back-story (implied more than stated), dialogue and action.

The basic setup is this: Denzel Washington plays Eli, a thoroughly put-together, and mysterious nomad moving through the bleak landscape of a post-war America. He seems to be going somewhere -- "West" he cryptically says, when asked -- and very clearly will not be stopped. The arc of the action is minimalism personified. Eli is going West, and Bad Guys are going to try to stop him. And Fail. That is really all you need to know, except that he is carrying a Book that turns out to be tremendously important.

Eli is something of a Force Majeur who, like the Walking Tall character, or David Carradine's TV Kung Fu character, Cane, is seemingly disadvantaged until very Bad Men out of Central Casting try to maim and/or kill him. That of course is a big mistake. and once we see this happen in the first scene we are in on the joke. Gary Oldman is splendid as the evil patriarch of a generic, dried up Western town and of course as bad, and powerful as Oldman's character is, he is no match for Eli. Most of the second reel concerns Eli's captivity in said town and eventual escape with the town virgin/prostitute, played by American Dream's Mila Kunis.

Two things make The Book of Eli something of an art house masterpiece. First, it succeeds on its technical merits over, and over. The Photography is absolutely splendid. I defy to you tell, in the first couple of minutes whether the film is shot in Black & White or Color, the filter and/or color processing is so unique. The screenplay is first rate, and the marvelous cast -- including the always wonderful Tom Waits -- delivers the goods. Finally, seeing The Book of Eli for the second time I got a chance to notice Atticus Ross's astonishing Score. Watch the last five minutes of The Book of Eli, a second time, and listen to one of the most achingly beautiful film scores in recent memory. Especially when matched with the significance of the Big Reveal at the end.

But the strongest kudos, besides the Hughes Bros. as co-helmers are reserved for Denzel. Can we just agree, people, that Denzel is not only the greatest American actor of his generation, but one of the top two or three greatest American actors of all time? He has done so many great films, and with two Oscars has been rightly recognized for Glory and Training Day. Most people don't even mention The Book of Eli when they are talking about great Denzel roles, but I would argue that this may be his very finest.

Why? Like Matthew McConaughey showed in Killer Joe, Denzel does menace better than almost anyone. Menace isn't being big and strong and scary, but showing an inner calm and confidence -- in the service of some divine motive -- in the face of over-whelming odds. Denzel did Menace exceptionally well in Tony Scott's under-appreciated Man on Fire, but his character was damaged goods - you sympathized with him but understood that he probably would not survive the third reel (sorry for the Spoiler). Here, Menace comes in the form of Righteousness. Eli needs to fulfill his mission, that mission is Divine and essential to the survival of Humanity, and if you get in his way you will probably die. Period. No offense.

To wrap up, The Book of Eli is a technically superior film, anchored by Denzel Washington's perhaps best, and most under-appreciated role. The supporting cast is top-shelf, including an uncredited and of course delightful Malcom MacDowell in the closing scene. If you do watch Eli, please make sure to watch in Hi Def on a good quality screen with good sound. Believe me, it is worth it.

Happy Doomsday.