The last time Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in an apocalypse-themed action movie with a Guns N' Roses soundtrack, it was Terminator 2, the biggest and loudest action movie made to that point. Since then, he's produced one bona fide balls-to-the-wall action flick (True Lies), one pale imitation (Eraser), and a parade of often witless self-parodies (Junior, Jingle All the Way, Batman & Robin). Fans have been waiting with bated breath for the "real" Arnold to re-emerge -- the Austrian oak with the groan-inducing one-liners delivered in that unique accent, the man who seemed almost, but not quite, in on his own joke. Most important, though, we've missed the plain and simple ass-kicking of the Schwarz's earlier days.
Given that director Peter Hyams managed to resuscitate Jean-Claude Van Damme's career temporarily with Timecop and Sudden Death, and given the aforementioned T2 similarities, there was plenty of reason to hope that End of Days would be the grand-slam battle royal to end them all, a take-no-prisoners, blow-up-the-world celebrity death match pitting Arnold against his toughest foe to date: Satan. But then, we may have forgotten that after working with Van Damme, Hyams went on to direct The Relic.
End of Days, sadly, follows exactly the same trajectory as that ill-conceived "monster in a museum" movie: Establish a simple premise, give the main characters an hour to catch up with what the audience already knows, and show no serious action until that time. In this case, the premise is that Satan (Gabriel Byrne, still clad in Stigmata gear) wants to get his hands on Robin Tunney (The Craft). Since Satan is evil, his hands being on Robin Tunney would be a very bad thing. Therefore, the good guys' goal is to keep the twain apart. It's as simple as that, but it takes an hour of screen time for Schwarzenegger and his partner, Kevin Pollak, to rendezvous with Tunney, and subsequently Satan. In the meantime, there's lots of self-destructive rage from Schwarzenegger, who's channeling Mel Gibson's suicidal widower in Lethal Weapon, and even more dime-store religious hokum (did you know that 666 turned upside down is 999? as in 1999?).
There are two ways to go with a movie like End of Days: either do The Exorcist on steroids, or make everything so extreme that the audience doesn't care what happens so long as a wisecracking muscleman whoops butt -- à la most of Schwarzenegger's early films. Unfortunately, this movie straddles a middle ground that's unlikely to fully please anybody. Which is not to say that it's without its charms, mostly of the over-the-top variety. When Tunney's character is first born, for instance, the baby is promptly whisked away to a dark basement, where a pentagram-wearing Udo Kier slices a live rattlesnake in half and feeds the baby its blood. (Sadly, Kier and Schwarzenegger never meet on screen for a battle of the accents.) When we first meet Arnold (whose character's name is Jericho; did we mention that this movie's short on subtlety?), he's making himself a breakfast shake of coffee, whiskey, Pepto-Bismol, Chinese takeout, and a slice of pizza he finds on the floor: "Breakfast iss da most impawtent meal off da day, right?"
And Byrne's Satan, when he's not causing unfeasibly large explosions or urinating flammable liquids, is like the Hollywood agent from hell, referring to the Bible as "an overblown press kit" and the forthcoming apocalypse as "a change of management." There's nothing wrong with this kind of lunacy, of course. It's just that there's not enough of it. Couldn't Satan arrange for some of his followers to fight Arnold earlier in the movie, so that at least there'd be some action while we wait for Arnold to figure things out? And does Robin Tunney really have to give that clichéd "Why must I be different?" speech? And does anyone care about endless scenes of Arnold bemoaning his lost family and drinking?
Like The Relic, End of Days perks up considerably in the third act, with lots of crashes, explosions, and blood. When Satan finally takes his true form, the Stan Winston-created critter that emerges is suitably cool, reminiscent of a Todd McFarlane drawing come to life (ironically more so than anything in McFarlane's own Spawn movie). Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, actually makes a fair go of acting. Not only does he manage to avoid a single wooden line reading (even when talking to himself -- no mean feat), he also looks suitably pained when he gets seriously beaten, shot, and even crucified. It may take Satan to make Schwarzenegger seem like an underdog, but age is also creeping in, adding more lines to his face, and damned if it doesn't suit him pretty well. Like Clint Eastwood, he's going to hang in there for the long term. Provided he can find better material than End of Days, of course.
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