I used to think the apocalypse was so "tomorrow." Lately at the movies, though, what with "Zombieland" and "2012" and "The Road" and "Daybreakers," the end of the world seems so yesterday. Another day, another sky full of ash. Another ribbon of highway littered with charred vehicles and human remains.

While we're on the subject: Why doesn't the apocalypse ever figure into a film like "Leap Year" or "Did You Hear About the Morgans?" Where it could really do some narrative good ?

This week brings a lean, stark, surprisingly effective headliner in Hollywood's apoc-a-pa-looza. "The Book of Eli" marks a return to form for co-directors Allen and Albert Hughes, who bill themselves as the Hughes Brothers. Their resume includes the vivid, juicy "Menace II Society" and "Dead Presidents," and what they've made here, from a script by Gary Whitta, is a sly Old Testament "Mad Max"-y sort of Western. It pits star and producer Denzel Washington as a high-plains drifter with God on his side against Gary Oldman as the entrepreneur ruling a makeshift dirty town somewhere in what's left of the Southwestern United States.

It's 30 years after the big blast, or whatever it was that caused the trouble. Armed with a bow, arrow, rifle and machete, Eli is making his way west, because he has been told this is where he must go, to save what's left of humanity. (Poor Viggo Mortensen in "The Road" - he was told to head south!) Oldman's character, Carnegie, the old-timer who controls the water supply, is searching for a special book, the one being protected by Eli.

It's not much of a spoiler: Early on, you figure it's either the Bible or "Master Your Metabolism: The 3 Diet Secrets to Naturally Balancing Your Hormones for a Hot and Healthy Body."

What I appreciate about "The Book of Eli" is its scale. Shot on nimble, lightweight Red digital cameras, the film may traffic in familiar landscapes and archetypes, but it allows its cast the space and time to make the characters breathe. The dirty town's inhabitants include Jennifer Beals as Carnegie's blind mistress; Mila Kunis as her daughter, a reluctant tool of Carnegie's and eventually an acolyte of Eli's; and, in a deft supporting role, Tom Waits as the local "engineer" and pawnshop owner, thrilled to pieces when Eli shows up bearing KFC moist towelettes.

The movie operates as a series of set pieces, one standout being Eli's visit to a survivalist couple's homestead. Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour, two of England's most distinguished hambones, play George and Martha, and, while they come and go quickly, in a hail of bullets, they're worth the detour. The Hughes Brothers aren't above cliches such as the hero's slow-motion strut toward the camera (that old thing again), but editor Cindy Mollo has the sense not to cut on the obvious beat every chance she gets. Eli's first full-on slaughter of bloodthirsty roadside thugs is shown in a cleverly sustained single take, in silhouette. Very satisfying. Gory, but satisfying.

For some, this genre picture will come with the bonus of its conspicuous and heavy-duty religiosity. It is about the Word and who controls it. But "The Book of Eli" works, even if the preservation of Christianity isn't high on your personal post-apocalypse bucket list. Establishing its storytelling rules clearly and well, the film simply is better, and better-acted, than the average end-of-the-world fairy tale. By the way, the next one, "Legion," is due in a week.

MPAA rating: R (for some brutal violence and language)

Cast: Denzel Washington (Eli); Gary Oldman (Carnegie); Mila Kunis (Solara); Ray Stevenson (Redridge);

Credits: Directed by the Hughes Brothers; A Warner Bros. Pictures release.

Running time: 1:58

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