Rated R/118 min.
Three Out of Five Stars
Post-apocalyptic movies must be hard to make because: a) their are so many of them, they’re all starting to look awfully familiar; and b) you have to create the world we live in now, then make it look like it’s been kicked down a dirt hill and stomped by a gang of mohawked bikers. I still remember with a smile when the makers of Waterworld built a floating set off the coast of Kauai, left after a day of filming and returned the next day to find that their huge, lavish creation had sunk into the Pacific ocean. Yet the filmmakers have it easy—the only thing worse than building these broken-down utopias is living in them.
No one knows this better than Eli, the desert nomad played by Denzel Washington, who spends the movie wandering Earth on foot after a great war turned much of the planet into charred, unsanitary ruins. Brandishing a machete and a mysterious book, Eli makes a stop in a ramshackle town run by a corrupt figure (Gary Oldman) who wants to exploit Eli’s talents. When Eli skips town the next morning, the chase is on.
This is the best film yet from Albert and Allen Hughes, the talented directing duo behind Menace II Society. I’ve been critical of how viciously violent their previous films were, but here the carnage is strong without being gratuitous or relentless. Instead, the emphasis is on storytelling and, while this isn’t as good a movie as The Matrix, the Hughes brothers have taken the same approach as the Wachowski brothers did on that film: they have a lot of fun mixing their favorite genres and shaping a story that is both a religious parable and an all-out Western shoot ’em up.
Washington is surprisingly ideal as a quiet, tough-as-rusted-nails cowboy, playing the kind of role that made Clint Eastwood famous. Oldman once again takes a familiar stock character and makes him an original creation, Jennifer Beals is touching as his long-suffering companion, Mila Kunis holds her own acting alongside Washington and Oldman and Ray Stevenson, who I dragged over the coals a few years back for his dreadful starring role in Punisher: War Zone, is unrecognizable as Oldman’s right hand man—but his acting has improved.
Under the grit and grimness, the film has a sense of humor; it knows it isn’t the first of its kind and pays clever tribute to its progenitors. For example: on the wall of Washington’s motel room is a poster for A Boy and His Dog, an early post-apocalyptic sci-fi classic.
The third act drags and there are at least three endings too many. Yet there is a big surprise at the very end that I didn’t see coming, a twist so wild and unexpected that, for the first time in my life, I actually shouted an expletive in a crowded movie theater.