In the event of the apocalypse, there will be a prevalence of machetes, cannibalism, and white guys in dreadlocks and goggles. Things will be bleak, but at least you can follow Denzel Washington around as he wanders the parched landscape with floods of gravitas, occasionally engaging in awesomely staged silhouette-melees with bands of barbarian thugs.
This is the basic experience of The Book of Eli. It's not the coolest, deepest, or most badass post-apocalyptic thriller, but it's not terrible, and Washington's performance goes a long way. He plays your basic man with no name, a guy who's been traveling west on an apparent mission from God for the past 30 years -- since humanity effed itself with a massive war that somehow resulted in the sun depleting the earth of all its resources and most of its people. We know that he's a highly skilled ass-kicker; he looks sweet wielding a sawed-off shotgun and can take down entire teams of opponents with a Bowie knife. And we know that he radiates understated charisma; every time he engages with some hard-scrabbling citizen, he subdues them with the kind of mesmerizing charm that could put a rabid dog at ease. And, within enough proximity of the opening credits that it can't be considered a spoiler, we know that he's carrying a Bible with him on his journey, guarding it against all obstacles and foes.
Why it's taken him 30 years to reach the West Coast -- even on foot -- is not clear, but as he nears his destination, Washington's character happens upon a town, where Tom Waits barters chapstick and handy wipes, Mila Kunis glances furtively as she serves drinks, and Gary Oldman rules the settlement with an iron fist. So when the badass with no name shows up in the saloon one day and is forced to demonstrate his hard-hitting prowess on a gang of dreadlocked/goggled ruffians, he piques the mayor's interest. Soon, Oldman figures out that the holy book Denzel's carrying is the ultimate tool for controlling and exploiting the masses and sets his sights on obtaining it, while Kunis (who plays his sort-of stepdaughter) joins up with the hero and vows to help him defeat Oldman, and deliver the book to its mysterious destination out west.
That whole idea that religion can be used for good or for evil is pretty simplified, but after 2009's Nic Cage embarrassment Knowing, The Book of Eli feels damn near like a graduate-level seminar in faith. And while it's kind of a shame that dystopian heroes don't say much, it can't be denied that Washington's portrayal is top-tier for this kind of movie. The script can be a little weak -- there's a plot twist that may or may not make you gouge your eyes out, and lot of minor developments turn out to make no sense -- but the many pieces that make up the production, from the nuts-and-bolts illustrations of post-humanity survival to the immaculately constructed burned-out landscapes, are often breathtaking. It's clear that with a more sophisticated script to back it up, The Book of Eli could have been a lot better, but for a portrayal of society at the end of all prosperity and hope, it really could be a lot worse.