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Originally published January 14, 2010 at 3:02 PM | Page modified January 14, 2010 at 5:03 PM

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Movie review

'Book of Eli' turns into a post-apocalyptic Western

"The Book of Eli," directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, is an overly familiar tale of a barren, post-apocalypse world. Denzel Washington stars as a violent hero with dazzling fighting skills who claims to be on a mission from God.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'The Book of Eli,' with Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Jennifer Beals, Mila Kunis, Michael Gambon, Frances de la Tour. Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, from a screenplay by Gary Whitta. 118 minutes. Rated R for some brutal violence and language. Several theaters.

Just a couple of months after "The Road" arrived in theaters, "The Book of Eli" dredges up another barren, post-apocalypse world in which the unfortunate survivors don't have much to celebrate.

Once more the landscape is desolate, and so are the people who made it through a vaguely defined catastrophe. Highways are broken, food is scarce and gangs of thieves rule the lawless frontier towns that now make up America.

But "Eli" is a much flashier entertainment. It's an action movie rather than a meditation — more "Blade" than "The Road," though it's oddly listless and at times surprisingly dull. When the twin directors, Albert and Allen Hughes, resort to slow-motion and silhouetted fight scenes, the result is showy rather than exciting.

But the movie does provide an apparently irresistible opportunity for Denzel Washington (who coproduced it) to play a violent hero who dazzles with his fighting skills. As the loner-survivor Eli, he carries a Bible that is much-coveted by his enemies. He literally regards himself as being on a mission from God.

The villain, a small-town dictator named Carnegie, is played by Gary Oldman, whose previous movie roles include Dracula as well as Lee Harvey Oswald. Gary Whitta's script gives him plenty of room to play with the dark side of Carnegie's fascination with scripture.

In a sense, both men are religious fanatics. Carnegie grew up listening to the Bible ("I know its power," he says), and he's obsessed with separating Eli from his book. Ever since a great war ended with the destruction of most Bibles, copies have been hard to find.

Quoting the Lord's Prayer as well as Johnny Cash, Eli believes that God has assigned him to carry his copy to the West Coast, and he must "stay on the path." Eventually he wins the aid of Carnegie's blind mistress (Jennifer Beals) and her enslaved daughter (Mila Kunis).

The fixation on the Bible (and biblical-scale cloud formations) gets awfully pompous at times, especially when it's used to justify gory dismemberments. Fortunately, the filmmakers introduce a comic episode involving a batty old couple, George (Michael Gambon) and Martha (Frances de la Tour), who have turned their home into a guns-packed fortress.

The movie is essentially a Western, with old-fashioned shootouts and barroom brawls interrupted by telling details of a global disaster: Water and chapstick are priceless, battery use must be rationed, signs of suicidal behavior are everywhere.

The Hughes brothers, who gave us the potent 1993 street drama "Menace II Society," are talented filmmakers. Yet they rarely establish a tone that would make this material seem fresh.

John Hartl: johnhartl@yahoo.com

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