Denzel Washington plays Eli, a lonely scavenger who's been traveling west for over 30 years, following a nuclear apocalypse that has wiped out most of the human population, and turned what's left of the United States into a Third World country. This film has drawn comparisons to The Road (2009), an aesthetically very similar film.
I'm not sure if I can lift one above the other. Both have their pros and cons. For example, this film has a better plot, probably because it's an action flick instead of a moody horror movie. The action involves a lot of obvious, religious overtones, but it's more kinetic and not as philosophical.
Viggo Mortensen gave a far more affecting performance in The Road than Washington does here. Not that Washington is a bad actor, he's still charming, given this material. It's just that the material here doesn't give Washington a whole lot with which to work.
Unlike The Road, this film offers an explanation for the devastation, a nuclear holocaust. The scenery looks as if most of everything was burned by nuclear fire. Characters talk about it all happening in a flash. They talk about life before the flash, but oddly the film has no flashbacks itself. Besides packs from KFC or copies of "O" magazine, the film offers no tangible back story for Eli or any character Eli's age.
Early on, one character asks Eli who he is and Eli never really answers. He carries a book that he constantly reads over and over again. He has a MPEG player with Al Green songs on it. He has an excellent sense of smell and hearing. He's also a precise and efficient killing machine.
Beyond that, we never get to know Eli. It gets to a point where Eli is touting himself as some kind of prophet, but it's odd because Moses never shot arrows through men's groins like Eli does. Defending himself is one thing, but Eli amputates, as he performs violent, bloody murders.
How did he learn to become such a great fighter? Where did he grow up? What did he do as a profession? Was he in fact trained by ninjas? We don't know. We don't ever know. Eli doesn't even tell people his name.
It's only in the last act that we learn that the filmmakers intentionally want Eli to be mysterious, to be at arm's length. It makes the twist at the end all that more surprising.
That surprise ending is in the same league as that of The Sixth Sense (1999). It's certainly not as good as the one M. Night Shyamalon cooked up, but it's one that makes you rethink everything you saw from the beginning and possibly make you better understand Eli, if still not completely knowing him.
The film tries to make a statement about the importance of keeping the faith, of not being wasteful, and even of how powerful religion can be, but I didn't care about all of that. There were too many nagging plot holes that got in the way.
Eli meets Solara, a young girl who wants to follow him on his journey. Eli locks Solara in a spring. Yet, next scene, she's magically free. How? The filmmakers never explain. Eli tries to escape with the book. One of the villains, Redridge, has a clear shot at him and doesn't take it. Why? These questions and others create plot holes that never get filled.
Regardless, directors Albert and Allen Hughes put together a pretty awesome gunfight in the final reel. Eli and Solara take refuge in a cannibalistic home that's attacked by rifles, machine guns and even rockets. What's amazing, besides the sound design, is the way that the camera literally flies in and out of the house like it has wings.
It's one of those scenes that probably took a lot of the directors' time. They probably focused a lot on it. It's the only really exciting and interesting moment, and they nail it, just in its visual splendor.
I usually wouldn't recommend a sub-par movie, based on my love of one scene. Yet, it's a scene that I really appreciated. I didn't really appreciate the trick ending. It's one that you might enjoy going back and analyzing on video. The film is only passable entertainment.
Three Stars out of Five
Rated R for brutal violence and language
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.