The Hughes brothers' The Book of Eli and Werner Herzog's remake of Bad Lieutenant tackle post-apocalyptic life in two very different ways.
With images from earthquake-ravaged Haiti where, together with physical structures, the very fabric of society was destroyed, still fresh on our TV screens - and all this after the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, and the chaos of Hurricane Katrina - the idea that some huge catastrophe might not only end physical life in the world but also radically change humanity as we know it may not be far from the anyone’s mind. Co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes don’t bother with the details of why the world has been laid to waste in their new film The Book of Eli. It’s not a natural catastrophe, that’s all we know: there was a “flash”, then a “war” about 30 years before, and we’re meant to assume it was a worldwide one. The earth has been scorched; many, many people are dead; and there is no functioning society left, only bands of highway robbers and communities dominated, like cattle towns in the Old West, by individual strongmen.
Wandering through this colorless world is Eli, a mysterious man who is seemingly untouchable by bullets or knives and carries only a knapsack. Denzel Washington plays the role as a sort of wordless sage who reveals only the bare minimum about what he’s doing: he’s carrying a book to some mysterious location. It’s a heavy, leather-bound volume with that’s reputed to have mystical powers and so is sought after by the film’s bad guy, Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who wants to use it to extend his little kingdom.
The Book of Eli would be brilliant if Oldman hadn’t been allowed to ham it up so shamelessly. His appearances threaten to turn the film into a cheap Mad Max parody but, luckily, Washington’s almost supernaturally calm, dignified presence saves scene after scene - even when he picks up a sidekick, a young woman who will, of course, make serious problems for his solitary cause. The book turns out to be the last surviving copy of the King James Bible, but the religious overtones of The Book of Eli are not at all simplistic. Eli tells the girl that even though his book might bring renewed hope to people, it might also have caused the war that destroyed the world. In addition, although Eli has a mission, he’s not a missionary, and he does not fall into the trap of those possessed by religious fervor. At a critical point, he says that he’s been protecting the book for so long that he’s forgotten what he believes it taught him. But he still firmly believes in what’s within himself and doesn’t let others tell him what to think: individual thinking and heartfelt conviction trump the blind following of orders, so hooray for Eli!
Individualism is clearly also one of Terence McDonagh’s strong points. It’s hard to imagine how someone so antisocial can work as a cop. His main interest isn’t law enforcement, but easy access to drugs; if he can’t get those, he’ll do with alcohol. Strangely, McDonagh also manages to work effectively as a policeman, nonchalantly catching a few bad guys while making snappy, smart-ass remarks. Cage (photo) is perfect for the role - but then, he’s played this character many times before, and walking through a film filled to the eyebrows with various chemicals should be easy after Leaving Las Vegas.
Unfortunately, The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans doesn’t do much else that’s interesting. Post-Katrina New Orleans is portrayed as a morality-free wasteland, but otherwise director Werner Herzog has cleaned up Abel Ferrara’s notorious original, explaining McDonagh’s substance abuse as a result of debilitating back pain (an injury sustained while selflessly saving a prisoner from drowning in his cell in the aftermath of the hurricane). He’s reduced the religious agony felt by Harvey Keitel, the original “Bad Lieutenant”, to a bunch of Catholic props and made the notion of forgiveness that so tortures Keitel entirely irrelevant. As a piece of entertainment, the film works nicely, but as a remake, it’s somewhat unnecessary.
THE BOOK OF ELI (USA 2010) Directed by Albert and Allen Hughes, with Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis. Starts February 18. Rating: 3/4
THE BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS (USA 2009) Directed by Werner Herzog, with Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes. Starts February 25. Rating: 2/4