The Book of Eli/Legion: January, The Home of Religious Apocalypse Films
On the surface, these two films appear to have a decent amount in common. Both have a surprising amount of religious talk for action thrillers. Both deal directly with the apocalypse (although Book of Eli takes place 20 years afterward). Both have, for all of the godly thematic content, plenty of bloody violence. It’s surprising how many people who talk to God can also put a bullet in the head of an enemy from long range. Yet the similarities end there. The Book of Eli is entertaining while remaining thoughtful, creating a fleshed-out new world and boasting a visual style so distinct that it’s likely to be remembered at the end of 2010. Its action exciting, characters interesting, performances strong. Legion takes place in our world and deals with archetypes we are all familiar with, content to let its film be no more than a glorified made-for-Sci-Fi-Channel movie with a bigger budget. That’s not to say it isn’t fun, since the action is silly and engaging and the general campiness is good for some intentional laughs. Yet while Book of Eli uses religion to root its film in something serious, Legion uses it in vain attempt to keep the goofiness grounded.
We enter the world of The Book of Eli seeing a dead body in an ashy dead forest. A cat approaches. This cat has been starving, as there’s clearly a shortage of food in this world. We see a man hiding, laying in wait. When the cat steps into position, the man uses a crossbow to kill the cat. Turns out there’s a shortage of food for all species. This man is Eli (Denzel Washington). He’s heading West for reasons unknown. He’s survived by not getting involved in the business of others– he relies on self-preservation. His mission to get West is more important than saving other individuals on the post-apocalyptic ravaged streets. We find out quickly what happens when looters try to take his possessions. Let’s just say for them, limbs and heads are in shortage. He wanders into a small town run by a smart man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who’s looking for a book– a book Eli has. He tries to coerce Eli into handing it over, even offering him Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of his blind girlfriend (Jennifer Beals). No dice. So the chase is on. And now Eli has to worry about Solara, who ran away from the town since she felt it’d be safer with him.
There’s a young cute girl to worry about in Legion too: Charlie (Adrianne Palicki), whose pregnant and working at a small diner in the middle of nowhere, run by Bob (Dennis Quaid). Bob’s son Jeep (Lucas Black) is desperately in love with Charlie, despite the fact that the child isn’t his. In the restaurant is a collection of customers including a rich snotty family (Kate Walsh, Jon Tenney, Willa Holland) and a former thug (Tyrese Gibson) driving to his child custody meeting. None of them suspect when an old lady (Jeanette Miller) comes in that they’re staring at someone sent by the God to deliver a message– that Charlie’s baby is going to burn and everyone is going to die. Michael (Paul Bettany) frees himself of God’s bondage, including cutting off his own wings, and brings an arsenal of weaponry to the diner with one purpose: protect the baby that will save mankind from an incoming army of angels, led by Gabriel (Kevin Durand), all sent by God to wipe out humanity and start over.
Look, some of you are reading that description of Legion and getting excited. Some of you are reading it and thinking it sounds dumb as hell. You’d both be right. The director, Scott Stewart, has been in charge of special effects on many outstanding movies in the past, so his effects work is bloody and fun, but Legion only provides fun in its more corny pleasures. Some of the best scenes feel like Sam Raimi– when the old woman walks in, then starts swearing and killing people, it’s that simultaneous creepy and hilarious that so few directors can perfectly capture. Same with “The Ice Cream Man,” played by Doug Jones, who rolls up in a pitch black night in an eerie ice cream truck, and then proceeds to have his arms and legs lengthen so he can run like a spider. Why does God have a spider ice cream man? The same reason he sends a foul-mouthed murderous old lady– because it’s fun. Gabriel succeeds in being a fairly cool adversary as well, with wings that slice through humans and a medieval-looking mace.
The film has long stretches of boring “character building,” pointless when every character is an archetype and you know exactly who will live and who will die by the time five minutes has passed. Characters looking for redemption will have noble deaths. The rich snooty people will have easily preventable gory deaths. The kindly black man played by Charles Dutton has literally zero chance of living, because he’s a kindly black man, and we’ve seen a thousand movies where the kindly black man dies. Also, while many elements of the film are intentionally funny, I’m not totally convinced that someone told Tyrese his part was so funny. The slang-spewing thug who says the most stereotypical thugged-out black man reactions to the death and destruction around him never gets annoying, because Tyrese is an appealing actor, but you can’t help but laugh when someone dies and Tyrese lets out a very hammy “Damn!!” There are also some very typical horror elements that seem less inspired and more lazy, like the creepy young child who speaks in a deep voice. I’ve seen more creepy deep-voiced children in horror films than I’ve seen kindly black men die in horror films. As long as Sci Fi Channel films are your thing, you’ll get a kick out of Legion. If your expectations are for any sort of intelligent filmmaking, look elsewhere.
The Book of Eli does have intelligent filmmakers in The Hughes Brothers, and most of the intelligence is poured into the set-up. This is a smartly constructed apocalypse, filled with ash and death, where there’s no money anymore, just valuable items for trading. At one point, Eli pulls out some moist towelettes, and since there’s not enough water to spare for people to bathe in, it’s the same as pulling out a bag of diamonds nowadays. His survival instinct is perfect– there aren’t many films in which the hero lets a girl get raped at the beginning, but the Hughes Brothers are ballsy enough to let this transpire, since it establishes Eli’s modus operandi more clearly than any speech would. People also ask to see your hands, since if you’ve resorted to cannibalism, your hands shake from muscle spasms as a side effect. It’s literally a dog-eat-dog world. Carnegie’s evil scheme– obtaining a Bible because of the power over people religion has held in the past– is fairly original and thought-provoking. Religion gets money, religion starts wars, religion gives people hope and establishes a code of conduct in an otherwise savage society. It seems extreme at first that he’d use so many resources in search of a book, but it makes sense.
The final twists of the film are also clever. The performances are top notch, with perhaps the exception of Kunis, who doesn’t really seem to fit into this world. The visuals are outstanding– there’s one shootout where the camera circles continuously between the bad guys and the people surrounding Eli, and it makes you smile that there are people in this world who care enough to show a film’s story instead of just telling it. Unfortunately, The Book of Eli is far from perfect. There are of course the incredible logic leaps that you would expect from an action film that comes out in January. Despite the smart detailed set-up and the steady execution, the film sometimes meanders just a tad long for my taste. Finally, there’s a sequel set-up that is not only inappropriate, it’s completely a slap in the face to what the rest of the film has accomplished. Sigh. No matter. Legion and The Book of Eli both give us fun apocalyptic action flicks, one with a vengeful God and one with a benevolent God. It’s perhaps a sign that the braindead generic film is the one where God has a less optimistic view of humanity. The Hughes Brothers put a film with creativity into the cineplexes, trusting that American audiences would embrace thoughtful entertainment– what a considerable leap of faith!
The Book of Eli: