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Film review: Disappointing 'Eli' confused, contrived

Published: Thursday, Jan. 14 2010 3:28 p.m. MST

Denzel Washington, center, wanders the wasteland of what used to be the U.S. in post-apocalyptic "The Book of Eli." Mila Kunis and Michael Gambon, background, also star.

Warner Bros.

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THE BOOK OF ELI — ★★ — Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis; rated R (violence, gore, profanity, torture, rape, vulgarity, slurs); in general release

"The Book of Eli" can't quite decide if it wants to be "The Road" or "The Road Warrior."

This post-apocalyptic thriller has a similarly bleak look and feel as the recent cinematic adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's well-regarded novel.

But it also apes the action-oriented, 1981 Mel Gibson hit in several respects.

As a result, it feels a bit confused. And an unconvincing, contrived final third or so of the movie proves to be its ultimate undoing.

In fact, this is one of the bigger disappointments of late, considering its intriguing premise as well as its cast — especially leading man Denzel Washington.

He stars as the title character, a resourceful middle-age man who's wandering throughout the wastelands that used to be the United States.

Armed with a deadly machete/sword, a handgun and a shotgun, as well as other survival skills, he's protecting what may be the last copy of the Bible on Earth.

There are quite a few people who would kill to get their hands on the book. That includes Carnegie (Gary Oldman), the tyrannical ruler of a small town Eli just happens to wander through.

Fortunately, Eli gets help from Solara (Mila Kunis), a young woman who is rebelling against her would-be stepfather, Carnegie.

There are several bizarre bits here, such as a sequence involving a cannibalistic couple (Frances de la Tour and Michael Gambon). This provides some humor — one thing the movie is lacking.

But it also feels like co-directors Albert and Allen Hughes ("From Hell," "Menace II Society") couldn't get a handle on the material.

Worse, they try to keep Eli's mission and his precious "cargo" a mystery from the audience. But it's obvious from his solemn demeanor and other clues (he blesses his food, for example) that he's a man of great faith.

Still, Washington does what he can with the character and the material, as unpleasant as it gets at times.

"The Book of Eli" is rated R and features strong violent action (slashings and stabbings, brawling, shootings, explosive and vehicular mayhem), other disturbing and upsetting violent content (violence against women and animals, and sexual violence, including attempted rape and another sexual assault), some gory and bloody imagery, occasional strong sexual language (profanity and other suggestive references), a sequence depicting torture and interrogation, and derogatory language and slurs. Running time: 118 minutes.

e-mail: jeff@desnews.com

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