In the world before “the flash,” people fiddled while Rome burned. No one knew what was precious. Thus speaks Eli, turning down a young woman’s sexual favors and offering instead to break bread. Setting post-apocalypse dramas in a torched American far west with homicidal bikers standing in for hard horsemen descends from the Marlon Brando 1950s with an assist from Clint Eastwood and “Mad Max.” So is the redemptive presence of god-fearing loners and moral warrior-outlaws.
Here, end-of-days survivor Eli (Denzel Washington) kills cats, feeds rats, and gets his directional mojo from Al Green. A drifter among postwar illiterates, he feels a calling to go west — though he’s no young man. Only to pause in a brutal frontier town run by villainous “sheriff” Carnegie (Gary Oldman). Carnegie is an avid reader desperately in search of the one pre-conflagration book he can’t find, the Bible. Guess who has the King James version his rucksack. Carnegie wants the good book to build a cult and keep a following (“It’s not a fucking book, it’s a weapon…”); Eli the drifter knows better than to relinquish it. It’s the last one on the dead planet and he’s convinced his western trek is God’s will. Carnegie’s avarice turns the drifter into an avenging angel.
For an hour, the Hughes Brothers’ film makes headway as a fable-cum-religious parable about the power of word, and memorization. But woe betide its last 30 minutes, which lapse into almost unbearable cliché and girl-power absurdity (pity Mila Kuna and Jennifer Beals). Stoic as always, Washington wastes his talents on another hapless script. Sepia-washed landscapes and a redemptive coda only add to the heavy-handedness.