Ah, post-apocalyptic Earth: a bleak, treacherous wasteland of decay and desolation. Given global warming, nuclear stockpiling and the predictions of the Mayan calendar, a barren planet is an all too real possibility, and thus, is rife with cinematic potential.

“The Book of Eli”

At Quality 16 and Showcase
Warner Bros.

“The Book of Eli” features an unsettling depiction of a world recovering from catastrophe. It’s a land of crumbling cities and dusty highways — a place where a tube of ChapStick is a valuable commodity. Sure, this description doesn’t seem different from similar material like “The Road,” but “The Book of Eli” distinguishes itself with unflinching messages of religion and morality along with the indispensable abilities of its star, Denzel Washington (“American Gangster”).

Washington plays Eli, a lonesome warrior in possession of the last remaining copy of history’s most powerful and influential book — The Holy Bible. He’s the classic man on a mission, solely devoted to his mysterious goal of taking the book “west.” But Eli isn’t a steadfast beacon of good, as one would expect from this sage-like persona.

“Stay on the path. It’s not your concern,” Eli mutters to himself as he ignores the slaughter of innocent civilians by highway bandits. Eli doesn’t feel obligated to “do the right thing.” He’s not willing to put himself in danger and possibly compromise his mission, a paradox that brings about the film’s captivating characterization of its protagonist. In his single-minded mission, Eli ignores the principles — like helping those in need, for one — of the very text he so faithfully protects.

In a role seemingly fit for a brawnier star, Washington excels as Eli, bringing his natural talent and gravitas to a man who runs his life on faith but is internally tormented by the daunting task he faces.

Eli certainly doesn’t avoid confrontation. When provoked, he willingly unleashes his supreme samurai-like skills, effortlessly slicing and dicing through gangs of cannibalistic foes with his sizable knife. The film’s action sequences are beautiful to watch, with Eli’s graceful, virtuosic precision.

Many of the goons are sent out by Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman (“The Dark Knight”). After a period of playing good guys, Oldman is gleefully resurfacing as a maniacal villain — the character type that has defined much of his career (see “The Fifth Element” and “Leon: The Professional”). Carnegie wants the Bible at all costs, intending to unite the illiterate masses into a functional community.

Carnegie’s motivations raise a profound question. His methods may be ruthless and vile, but he would use the Bible to recreate civilization on Earth by giving people a reason to live and work. Does that justify his wicked actions?

It’s moral ambiguity like this that sets “The Book of Eli” apart from typical, mindless action fare. Yet the film falters with its achingly sluggish plot, which plods along as slow as Eli’s march across the country. Also tacked on after the tepid climax is a fairly clever but ultimately frustrating ending that you’ll either loathe or adore.

With an archaic name following the phrase “The Book of,” the title suggests a chapter of the Old Testament. In many ways, it’s a new addendum to the Bible — a moral story of a man who struggles between right and wrong before truly finding himself and his purpose on Earth. As a whole, “The Book of Eli” is not as timeless of a tale, but it should still be remembered for a long time.

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