Thirty years after the nuclear holocaust, Eli (Denzel Washington) is traveling on foot across the blasted landscape, hunting for food and fighting when necessary. He battles and defeats several highwaymen. Looking for water, he comes to a town run by a warlord named Bill Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who is looking for a particular book he believes will give him power.
Eli hires The Engineer (Tom Waits) to recharge the batteries on his portable music player, a rare device. He is attacked in a bar by a gang of bikers and kills them all. Carnegie is impressed and offers him a job, but Eli refuses. Admiring a rare literate man, Carnegie forces him to stay the night. Carnegie’s blind mistress Claudia (Jennifer Beals) brings him food and water, and Carnegie sends his daughter Solaris (Mila Kunis) to seduce him, but he refuses that offer too. She notices he has a book and he offers to share his meal, after he says Grace. When Solaris repeats the prayer the next day, Carnegie realizes Eli has the book he wants—the Bible.
Eli leaves in the morning, but Carnegie’s men confront him in the street to take the book. When he refuses, they attack him and they all end up injured or dead. Even Carnegie is shot in the leg. Solara follows Eli, but he traps her and leaves without her. When she is attacked by rapists, he appears and kills her attackers. He allows her to accompany him, telling her that he is headed for the coast to bring the last surviving bible to a place of safety mentioned by a voice in his head.
Eli and Solara are trapped in a house, but George and Martha (Michael Gambon and Frances de a Tour) invite them for tea. Carnegie arrives with his men. George, Martha, and many of the men are killed, and Eli and Solara are captured. Threatening to kill Solara, Carnegie forces Eli to surrender the bible. He shoots Eli and leaves with his caravan. Solara escapes, blowing up a truck with a hand grenade, and returns to Eli, but Carnegie is running out of fuel and must return to town.
Solara finds Eli and they drive to the Golden Gate Bridge. They row to Alcatraz Island, where there is a book depository. Eli no longer has the bible, but he dictates it from memory. He is blind. Back in the town, Carnegie discovers that the bible is in Braille. His blind mistress claims she cannot read it. Carnegie’s leg wound is festering and the town is rebelling against him. Once he has dictated the book, Eli dies, but the Bible is printed many times. Solara is offered sanctuary, but she decides to return home, taking Eli’s weapons with her.
The film was directed by the Hughes Brothers and written by Gary Whitta. Anthony Peckham rewrote the script. The fight scenes used the Filipino martial art of Kali, choreographed by Jeff Imada and taught to Denzel Washington by him and Dan Inosanto, a protégé of Bruce Li. Washington did all his own stunts. Throughout the movie, there are abundant hints, particularly in the fight-scenes, that Eli is blind.
Biblical quotations appear often, and Johnny Cash lyrics fit right in. People often check strangers’ hands, because shaking hands are a symptom of Creutzfeld-Jakob disease, caused by eating people’s brains. The apocalyptic framework, the religious message, and the violent fight scenes seem a little uncomfortable with each other, I have to admit. In the end, it’s a post-apocalyptic Western, but the choreography is beautiful and Denzel Washington carries it off.