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Denzel Washington is a Man on a Mission in The Book of Eli

  • Christa Banister Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jun 09, 2010
Denzel Washington is a Man on a Mission in <i>The Book of Eli</i>

Apparently, the fascination with all things apocalyptic will continue in 2010, thanks to The Book of Eli, the third end-of-the-world flick released in the past four months.

But even if the subject matter and the accompanying images (namely, the utter desolation of everything on the planet) are starting to feel familiar, the approach, not to mention the storyline, is unique in The Book of Eli

Definitely not as campy as Roland Emmerich's 2012 or nearly as bleak as the recent big-screen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's famed novel the road, The Book of Eli is the story of a solitary man's journey across what used to be America as we know it. 

Driven by God's voice and armed with His protection (namely, some killer survival skills whether he's using a samurai sword, guns or a bow and arrow), Eli's mission is simple. Since all the other copies have been burned, he's supposed to keep the last Bible on the planet safe—and take it west.  The reasons for heading in that direction haven't been revealed yet, but Eli (Denzel Washington) is committed to seeing the plan through because he knows, somehow, it's the only hope for the future.

Of course, Eli's nearly 30-year journey hasn't exactly been an easy one. Not only is water virtually scarce, and survival depends on whatever he can find to eat (a hairless sphinx is dinner in one particular scene), but the world has become increasingly savage. There's nothing resembling civilization, no law, and gangs of violent hooligans who wouldn't think twice about killing a man for the things people used to take for granted—shoes, a drink of water, a nice warm blanket.

But in this kill-or-be-killed world, Eli is decidedly a peacemaker. Well, unless someone challenges him, naturally. As many attackers discover before meeting a grisly end, Eli doesn't mess around when it comes to the task at hand. Guided by his beliefs and fiercely protective of the Bible he's been charged to protect, he does whatever it takes to get from one day to the next.

Aside from the requisite man vs. nature struggle, another conflict becomes increasingly more threatening to Eli's endgame, thanks to an opportunistic man named Carnegie (Gary Oldman) who understands the power that Eli holds with him, even if his life hardly reflects its principles. The self-proclaimed leader of the thieves and gunmen in a makeshift city in the middle of the desert, Carnegie wants nothing more than to get his hands on the Bible Eli is carrying. Meanwhile, Carnegie's adopted daughter Solara (Mila Kunis) is simply intrigued because she knows there's something different, something hopeful about Eli and his mission.

Stepping into Eli's Well-Worn Shoes

For Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington, the son of a Pentecostal minister of 50 years, the opportunity to play a faith-filled character like Eli was something close to his heart, especially since one of the film's prevalent themes is that "God is love." 

During his daily Bible reading recently, Washington had an a-ha moment of sorts, a moment of reflection on what's really important in life (and guess what, it's not those aforementioned golden statues, the crowning achievement in the acting biz).

"I'm looking around at this big house and all the stuff around me, and I remember that saying ‘You never see a U-Haul behind a hearse.' You can't take any of this with you; even the Egyptians tried it, and they were robbed," Washington shares. "I said, ‘What do you want, Denzel?' One of the words in the reading that day was wisdom. It talked about that in the fourth chapter of Proverbs 4:1. And I thought that was something to work on—wisdom and understanding.  So I started praying about that, asking God to give me a dose of that. Ultimately, I can't get any more successful, but I can get better and learn to love more. That's key."

And about those martial arts skills? Washington put in months of rigorous training and worked with a renowned martial arts practitioner who was actually a protégé of the late Bruce Lee. "It was challenging and a lot of fun to train in the dojo, and I have the utmost respect for what they do," says Washington. "Together, we worked on a fighting style for Eli that was an amalgamation of skills that he would've developed the hard way—on the road."

Redemption in the Trenches

Another theme that Washington particularly appreciated about the Book of Eli story was the all-too-important reminder than even in God's work it's important to "do for others more than you do for yourself."

"It's interesting, here's a man who like Saul/Paul is knocked off his horse. Eli has this epiphany, this moment that God spoke to him—‘take this book west." And of course, I don't know if this is said—‘and kill everybody on the way!'" Washington says. "But that's what happens. For me, that became the arc of the character, that at his most violent, this innocent girl [Solara] who can't even read and doesn't even know what the Bible is says ‘Stop!' You know sometimes we get so focused in God's name, I mean who is the better man at that moment: Carnegie or Eli when my character is chopping people to bits? There's a fork in the road, and Eli makes the choice [to travel through Carnegie's city]. Or a choice is made for him. Either way, he goes into that town, and maybe that's why, because there was a lesson for him to learn."

When portraying other violent characters in his past like a corrupt police officer in Training Day, Washington says he's "tried to bend" even the worst of roles.

"The first thing I wrote on my script for Training Day was ‘the wages of sin is death." Washington remembers. "In the original script, you find out that my character died on the television. And I said ‘No, no, no.' In order for me to justify him living in the worst way, he had to die in the worst way. I had Ethan Hawke's character pulling me out of the car, and I crawl like a snake, and the whole neighboring community turns their back on me. Then I get blown to bits."

In Malcolm X, Washington even found the proverbial silver lining in playing a man who'd seen his father murdered in "the worst way," a man "with all this hatred in him."

"Then he learned that there were Muslims of all colors, and he learned to love—or at least, change—before he was killed," Washington adds. "I try to find a way to ‘turn that' or ‘use that' in all of my characters. And thankfully with ‘Eli' that was a little easier. For me, it was very parallel to my role in man on fire. This very violent man meets an innocent child who teaches him to be human again—and then (SPOILER ALERT) he sacrifices his life for her. That's the story I was telling here."

Opening wide in theaters on January 15, 2010, The Book of Eli stars Denzel Washington, Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis, Ray Stevenson, Jennifer Beals and is rated R for some brutal violence and language.  For more information, please visit the official Web site of the book of eli

Photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.