In movies he's been an angel, an inspirational teacher and the Black Muslim icon Malcolm X. He's played soldiers, policemen, coaches, doctors. He's spoken the words of Shakespeare and Spike Lee. Even as a killer, in American Gangster, he carried himself like a cool chief executive, the mayor of the Harlem underworld. He has the gift of making melodrama seem plausible just because he's doing it. And always in Denzel Washington's screen demeanor is the sense of power withheld, of anger internalized. He doesn't shout or strut, doesn't need to. Why raise your voice when a good stare from that handsome, solemn face will quiet any adversary? That is the mark of cinema charisma: an assurance that articulates itself through sheer presence. A hero has it; so does a god.
Washington, 55, is some kind of deity a man of God if not the Lord himself in The Book of Eli, the grand and grimy post-apocalyptic western from the twin auteurs Allen and Albert Hughes. They must have recognized an anomaly in Washington's quarter-century star career: that, like Tom Hanks but not many others, he's been a major movie male without anchoring an action franchise. (He hasn't even made a sequel, though there may soon be one to Inside Man.) A two-time Oscar winner Best Actor for Training Day, Best Supporting Actor for Glory he's had his share of hits, but mostly in the genre of smart adult melodrama. He is a figure of smoldering passion, not lightning action.
Eli pushes the actor into Wesley Snipes territory, as he plays a figure who channels both a taciturn John Wayne hero and the implacable warriors of Japanese samurai films like Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and the Zatoichi blind-swordsman series all of which fed on, and in turn fed, the Hollywood notion of solitary, preternatural machismo. The new movie taps Washington's coiled strength, transforms that asset into a weapon and gives him the chance to kick ass for righteousness' sake.
Gary Whitta's script, set 30 years after civilization screeched to a halt when a great "flash" (maybe a devastating bomb or the wrath of God) filled the sky, imagines a charred American Southwest littered with dead trees, debris, corpses a landscape not even WALL-E could clean up. The desaturated color scheme makes the whole world look as if it were left outside to die, and it was. Marauding punks prey on solitary travelers for water, food and clothing. With all industrial and agricultural sectors in shambles, the fear-market system applies: survival of the meanest. Or, in Eli's case, the purest. He's a good man with a Good Book a rare extant copy of the Bible, whose possession he will defend with his life.
In a long tracking shot at the start of the film, a feral cat prowls this wasteland until it is felled by a slow-motion arrow. The silent, heavily bearded archer moves on into a shack, where a man has hanged himself. The archer notices the dead man's boots and appropriates them. He cooks himself a meal fillet of feline and feeds a morsel of it to a stray rat. Back on the road, he is set upon by four highwaymen. Out comes his sword, and in an instant, they are decapitated, eviscerated, kaput. Later he sees another gang abusing a woman but doesn't intervene. "Stay on the path," he tells himself. He is the superman as loner, able to survive in a hostile world because he's handy with sword, fist, rifle and ax. And because he's Denzel Washington.