By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
The lord works in mysterious ways in The Book of Eli. Violent ones, too, as twin filmmakers Albert and Allen Hughes prove that Mel Gibson hasn't cornered the market on gore in the name of God.
Unlike Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, The Book of Eli is a futuristic allegory of faith, with no less saintly an actor than Denzel Washington playing Eli, a wandering believer in possession of the last King James Bible after a cataclysmic war laid waste to the world. Folks blamed the apocalypse on religious differences, so all holy books were burned.
A voice told Eli to transport that Bible somewhere out West, through scorched land and scarred morality, to an unknown place where it can assist the creation of a new world. It's a scenario that should sit well with Christians who flocked to Gibson's movie, except that Eli's methods are closer to the gospel according to Tarantino.
Eli goes Old Testament on heathens attempting to steal the book, lopping off heads and limbs, violating flesh with arrows, or simply blasting them with a sawed-off shotgun. The Hughes brothers, who haven't made a feature film since 2001's From Hell, return with an unsettling vengeance that often collides with the forgiveness factor of Eli's ultimate goal.
Turn the other cheek? Not when you can crease it with a machete.
The Book of Eli is the movie that some expected The Road to be. Both films share vividly downbeat impressions of a world composed of ashen grays and rusty browns, and survivors driven to cannibalism. Unbound by The Road's literary stature, Gary Whitta's original screenplay aims for simplistic morality, almost a spaghetti Western vibe. It's a lowbrow approach to high-minded spirituality, before the final, turgid 20 minutes offers a sanctified alibi for all this mayhem.
Washington's persona easily makes Eli a supportable hero, smoothing over the contradictions of what he does and why he does it. Whitta slips in late revelations about Eli and that Bible that feel like cheats; I'd want to see The Book of Eli again just to see if Washington behaved true to the surprises throughout. I don't think so.
The King Herod to Washington's Eli is Gary Oldman's Carnegie, a frontier despot who wants the Bible to further his power plays, considering it "a weapon aimed at the hearts and minds of the weak and desperate." Eli has a "Mary Magdalene" in Solara (Mila Kunis), a fallen woman who gradually sees the light. But no apostles; Eli is tough enough to handle things himself.
And you have to root for a guy who keeps an iPod operating after the apocalypse, for comfort if not joy. What's on Eli's playlist? The only song we hear is How Can You Mend a Broken Heart by Al Green. Make that Reverend Al Green. Even during down time between slaughters, Eli keeps the faith.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.