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Fights, visuals are ‘Book of Eli’s only redeeming qualities

Denzel Washington, center, stars in the visually pleasing action-adventure film, “The Book of Eli.” Warner Bros. (Warner Bros.)
Denzel Washington, center, stars in the visually pleasing action-adventure film, “The Book of Eli.” Warner Bros. (Warner Bros.)
Robert W. Butler Kansas City Star

“The Book of Eli” is a post-apocalyptic spaghetti Western.

Clint Eastwood – er, Denzel Washington – drifts into a dusty frontier town and uses his machete to clean house while quoting Scripture and the occasional Johnny Cash lyric.

Written and directed by the Hughes brothers (Allen and Albert, their first film since 2001’s “From Hell”), “Eli” has some terrifically choreographed fight scenes, a nearly wordless opening 15 minutes that’s a model of visual storytelling and an arresting look thanks to its wasteland art direction and monochromatic photography.

Dramatically, it’s a mixed bag.

Thirty years ago a global disaster decimated mankind; the few survivors were so angry that they rejected all religion, going so far as to burn every Bible.

(Yes, this seems unlikely inasmuch as war and massive loss of human life invariably make societies more religious. But, hey, it’s the Hughes’ movie, and they can envision any future they like.)

Anyway, the stranger played by Washington (he totes a child’s backpack with the name “Eli” written inside) is carrying a leather-bound Bible, perhaps the last one in existence.

His God-given mission is to walk west for an encounter with destiny – but a local warlord (Gary Oldman, less histrionic than usual but still picking splintered scenery from his incisors) wants the holy book so that he can use it to control others.

Eli is befriended by a local wench (Mila Kunis) who follows him into the wilderness. They briefly take shelter with a couple of eccentric cannibals, and there’s a nifty farmhouse siege that results in some satisfying mayhem.

The film ends with an ironic flourish that would have been at home in an old “Twilight Zone” episode.

But “The Book of Eli” has tone problems – it takes itself way too seriously. Not even an actor with Washington’s gravitas can keep eyes from rolling at the silliness dished here.

Even the “Mad Max” movies had the smarts to laugh at themselves.

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