The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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'Book of Eli': Huge Christian blockbuster or action movie dud?

January 13, 2010 |  4:50 pm

Who knew? I thought the "The Book of Eli," the new Denzel Washington film that opens Friday, was supposed to be part of the new wave of "The Road"-style post-apocalyptic thrillers that represented Hollywood filmmakers' underlying pessimism about the future of the world. (The film's trailer shows Washington -- wearing shades, military-style fatigues and a backpack with a nasty-looking machete -- grimly wandering the desolate landscape, the sheer desolateness of the landscape having apparently turned his hair gray.)

Movie_BookOfEliPoster The early reviews have not been good. So far, the film has a lowly 23 on Rotten Tomatoes, with Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman calling it a "ponderous dystopian bummer that might be described as 'The Road Warrior' without car chases."

But wait. It turns out that the movie may end up being a huge hit in the heartland, since to hear the New York Post's Kyle Smith tell it, the film is actually a "Christian blockbuster." Smith, one of the few openly conservative critics at work today, comes up with a "Road Warrior" reference of his own, this being a movie destined to inspire all sort of comparisons to the Mel Gibson-starring 1981 futuristic classic. Except Smith sees "Eli" as being "like 'The Road Warrior' as rewritten by St. Paul."

Full of praise for the Hughes brothers-directed picture, he says that "Eli" is not only "a well-done action movie, but an overtly, unabashedly Christian one in which Denzel Washington plays a soldier of God. He's on a divinely inspired quest -- yes, a literal mission from God -- to take The Book to the West as a swarm of wrongdoers led by Gary Oldman try to stop him."

I've read enough of the Bible to know that it's a book with at least as much blood and savagery as any James Ellroy crime novel (as evidenced by the recent R. Crumb version of the Old Testament -- which is notable for being (a) literal and (b) jam-packed with violence and sex), but I'm not so sure that Middle American evangelicals will flock to see a film with so much bloody mayhem and such a grim view of the future. But Smith insists the movie is "going to do heavenly business at the box office." Is he being too optimistic? We'll be watching the film's box-office numbers this weekend -- and its all-important CinemaScore rating -- and see whether we've got a true Christian blockbuster or just another futuristic dud on our hands.