The post-apocalyptic landscape that Denzel Washington’s solitary traveller wanders across in this sombre actioner looks so familiar you half expect him to meet Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee coming in the opposite direction. Instead the titular Eli comes across Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the only guy in this ravaged future America to recognise the significance of the clasped Bible he has in his possession. “It’s not a book – it’s a weapon!” his tinpot despot hisses at his underlings after Denzel strolls into his desert town looking for water. But Eli is not about to surrender his good book so easily. He’s a man on a mission, and he has a really big knife...
With its religious overtones and unabashedly Christian hero, The Book Of Eli has more on its mind than your average end-of-the-world flick. Strip away its bloated sense of self-importance, though, and you are left with a reheated spaghetti western with a garnish of Mad Max mayhem. Denzel – first seen offing an emaciated cat in what some may read as payback for Fallen – exudes nobility as the driven Eli but is a real drag to be around, as Carnegie’s hot stepdaughter Solara (Mila Kunis) discovers after she decides to follow him into the wilderness. With its deserted cars, decaying skeletons and marauding bands of unwashed scavengers, meanwhile, said wilderness has little new to offer, especially to those who caught The Road, Carriers or I Am Legend.
What the Hughes brothers’ first picture since 2001’s From Hell needs is a bit of leavening humour to make its portentousness easier to swallow. Indeed, were it not for Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour’s screwball cameos as a pair of ageing survivalists who give Eli and Solara succour and Malcolm McDowell’s uncredited appearance as a dotty librarian, this would have all the zip of a Sunday-morning sermon.
For all its knife scraps, shoot-outs, big bangs and fisticuffs, Denzel’s latest is a sluggish affair weighed down by its lofty themes. It also comes with a preposterous twist and a paying-the-rent performance from Oldman that’s pure cured ham.