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'The Book of Eli': Denzel and swordplay; little else

He is a loner, trudging in battered shoes across a sun-blasted landscape. He has a worn-out coat, a tattered backpack and sunglasses. He has needed them ever since that day, 30 years before, "when the bomb blew a hole in the sky."

Eli occasionally stumbles into other denizens of this wasteland. They always want to know what's in that backpack. "A book." They always want to see it. Some of them insist.

And then, behold! Out comes the machete and off comes a hand. If he kills them, Eli says a little prayer afterward.

The Book of Eli is a stylized, amped-up post-apocalyptic action film riding on the dusty shoulders of Denzel Washington — The Road with sword fights. The Hughes Brothers, who rose to fame with Menace II Society in the last century, try for a comeback with a desolate, deliciously bleak film of violence and allegory. But whatever its virtues, Eli is a movie that can't help but suffer in comparison to the much-delayed and much better The Road, which reached theaters only last month.

Eli is a man with a mission. Deliver this book. Kill anyone who would stop him.

He stumbles into an Old West town run by the one guy smart enough to hoard water and surround himself with thugs to protect it. He is played, as usual, by Gary Oldman. He has water, a blind lover (Jennifer Beals) and her daughter (Mila Kunis). And he wants that book.

It's obvious what the book is, and the resolution to this quest tale is silly beyond belief. Denzel just plays it quiet, tough and cool, as if that alone will carry the film. What the Hughes Brothers do well is stage sword fights in silhouette and Road Warrior-ish chases and face-offs. They create a vivid dystopia, where ChapStick and KFC towelettes and non-human meat are in short supply, where iPods still exist, but rare is the tinkerer (Tom Waits) who can recharge them.

How else can Eli listen to Al Green sing How Can You Mend a Broken Heart as he dozes off in another abandoned house? That's the best moment in The Book of Eli, the only one good enough to be an outtake from The Road.

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