Pan Apocalypticon

Soon we’ll tire of genre films that mash up every convention to create something new the way Book of Eli does, but we’re not there yet

His name turns out to be Eli, but let’s just refer to him as a nameless stranger, and a man of few words. Grizzled and weary, he wanders into a dusty town, packing guns and wielding a machete, then goes up against an inordinate amount of bad guys — leaving them laying, of course.

No, you haven’t stumbled onto some long-lost Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western. This is more of a post-apocalyptic religio-good-vs-evil sci-fi Western. And the Clint-like nameless guy is played by Denzel Washington, serving up a mild-mannered but mean and lean character who’s fast and skilled with his weapons and vicious when it comes to his survival.

Survival is what’s it’s all about in this moody, but action-filled piece. The CliffsNotes version would read: There’s been a war, a hole was torn in the sky, the sun killed most people, blinded a lot more, survivors — both good and bad — are eking by without benefit of law or any recognizable form of civilization.

It’s a bountiful time for movies about the destruction of mankind. The past few months have given us The Road, 9 and 2012. And Legion is a week away.

This one picks up bits and pieces of films that have come before, from those spaghetti Westerns to The Road Warrior. It even pays blatant homage to the great 1975 post-apocalyptic A Boy and His Dog (a tattered poster of it hangs on a wall in Eli’s room). But much as James Cameron did in Avatar, first-time scripter Gary Whitta has come up with something new by mixing together lots that’s tried and true.

Among his meager personal items, Eli is carrying a big, leather-bound book. When alone, he’s constantly perusing it, but he lets no one else near it. When his travels bring him to a lightly populated wreck of a ghost town, he comes in contact with the local kingpin, Carnegie (Gary Oldman).

Even though he’s midway through a biography of Mussolini, Carnegie wants only to own one particular, very hard to find book: the one, natch, that Eli has all bundled up.

That pretty much sets the stage for what gets played out here. Yet despite the plentiful action (car chases, shoot-outs) and neato dialogue (“This is a civilized town — we don’t eat humans”), it’s a film filled with great performances.

Nothing is missing from Washington’s portrayal of a man on a mission. Except for a brief smile, his game face is on, and he comes across as a dangerous fellow, trying to keep out of trouble, quietly and regularly chanting his mantra — “Stay on the path. It’s not your concern” — when he stumbles upon some.

Oldman’s Carnegie is sweatily evil, but he, too, is on a mission of sorts. It’s the British actor’s best American performance since his Lee Harvey Oswald in JFK. There’s also the gorgeous Mila Kunis as the gorgeous Solara, but something is a tad off with her character, as she’s not quite slinky or dirty enough in this cast of people who don’t take baths.

Some odd, darkly comic moments are provided by the supporting cast, including Tom Waits as a shopkeeper, and Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour as the curiously well-fed George and Martha. Viewers may drop a tear or two at the marvelous performance by Jennifer Beals as Solara’s mom.

Between the film’s bleak look and feel of colorless sky, crumbling buildings and no hopes of a bright future, there are also some dandy plot twists. It’s a cool science fiction film that delivers a message. But unlike The Road, there’s nothing cerebral about it.

Hollywood of the North: North Idaho and the Film Industry @ Museum of North Idaho

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