The clouds are gray, the scorched earth is gray, and the age-old nuclear ash falling from the sky is gray. If you look closely at Denzel Washington, as he saunters in slow motion through a bombed-out hotel lobby full of rotten-toothed ruffians, you can see that his hair and beard are flecked with gray as well. Is it just our imagination, or is the aridly desolate post-apocalyptic road movie showing its age? In the last 35 years or so, there have been an awful lot of them, going back to A Boy and His Dog (1976) and, of course, The Road Warrior (1982) — the greatest of all futuristic wasteland thrillers — and, most recently, The Road. I’m not sure if anyone was clamoring for another one of these films just now, but one thing is certain: We don’t need The Book of Eli, a ponderous dystopian bummer that might be described as The Road Warrior without car chases, or The Road without humanity.
What’s left? A lot of wide-open barren desert space shot from music-video angles (think the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ”Give It Away”). The directors, Allen and Albert Hughes, do their best to make the landscape threatening by filling it with a token sprinkle of homicidal bikers and cannibals, plus Gary Oldman as an evil ringleader whose scariest aspect is his harshly photographed skin. Roving through it all is Washington’s Eli, a monosyllabic lone gunslinger in a signature outfit of sunglasses, kaffiyeh, and knapsack packed with lethal blade. He’s a mystical avenger who has been wandering through the wilderness for 30 years, toting a leather-bound King James Bible from which he plucks ominous quotes. He makes apocalyptic prophecy sound like a rerun.
I’d be willing to forgive The Book of Eli its portentous sins if it had kick-ass action scenes, and every so often Eli does slice and dice the stuffing out of half a dozen hooligans at once, or he presides over a gun battle in which the bullets clatter and echo with full-metal zing. But those are just about the only scenes in the movie that have a pulse. At their best, the Hughes brothers have been brilliant directors: Their first film, the 1993 mind-of-a-gangbanger classic Menace II Society (made when they were just 20), established them as visceral and psychological prodigies, and the criminally underrated From Hell (2001) was a gothic-shock serial-killer mystery that featured Johnny Depp in one of his finest performances. (Had he been the mainstream superstar he is today back when the film was released, it might have been a sensation.) The Book of Eli is the first Hughes brothers movie that feels stripped of drama, imagination, sensibility. Some may find the film worth sitting through simply for its final ”Whoa!” of a twist, but the Hughes brothers direct most of it as if they were glorified end-of-the-world set decorators. The Book of Eli is like a movie based on a graphic novel you don’t want to read. D