Someone give John David Washington a gold star.

The 25-year old son of Denzel is credited by the actor as the reason he took the lead in The Book of Eli. And Training Day. And American Gangster. Apparently JD gets the first look at all those scripts that land on dad’s doorstep.

And not for nothing, but the young man’s got some pretty decent taste in movies.

While Eli is admittedly the weakest of the three, it’s Denzel’s performance that keeps it from being just this side of a preachy, post-apocalyptic sermon.

Denzel plays Eli, the holder of the last Bible on Earth. It’s 30 years after the end of the world (speaking of which… seriously? 2012, The Road, and now this?), and our man is on a mission. Where? “West.”

That’s all we know.

Eli starts out with our hero wandering the vast wasteland that was once America (it’s really New Mexico), armed with a keen sense of smell, an almost biblical (ha!) mastery of kung fu, and a really sharp machete.

It’s high-action, gritty, and pretty darn compelling. But then, just when you think things are gonna get interesting, they don’t. And instead of becoming a modern-day Beyond Thunderdome (although apparently the costume designers of both are very close friends), The Book of Eli becomes a part-time rumination on religion and spirituality. Not necessarily a bad thing, so long as you’re expecting it. Which I wasn’t.

Sure, there’s still smatterings of killer action, including gunfights, fistfights, and knife fights, and the cinematography is stunning (and more along the lines of what I had hoped to see in The Road).

And the performances are also great. As mentioned, Denzel’s quiet cool almost single-handedly saves the movie. Mila Kunis turns in her finest performance to date as a prostitute in the local village, and the always-great Gary Oldman does an admirable job with the lousily-written part of bad-guy-who-runs-said-local-village-and-who-desperately-wants-Eli’s-Bible.

But when you boil it down, The Book of Eli is a parable packaged as Mad Max– and that’s what doesn’t sit quite right.

…which brings us to the twist ending. You won’t see it coming, so don’t bother trying. Suffice it to say that your whole take on the movie rests in how you react to the final five minutes. You’ll either love it or roll your eyes a little. Color me a little in the latter camp. It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but it still kept it from being worthy of a whole-hearted recommendation.

The Book of Eli is very good. It’s just not great.

3/5 stars