Do you ever wonder what Arnold thinks about himself? Is he proud of his lunkhead-robot self-image? Is he aware of how demented he looks when he smiles on a wide screen? Does he ever fret that people even his fans see him as a guy version of the dumb blond, rippled and well-posed?
Probably not. For all the jokes made at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s expense, he may be what he seems to be, that is, one of the more confident personalities on the planet, smug and corny, not very self-reflective and yet quite conscious of his strengths and limitations, a hulk of a workaholic who likes what he does and who he thinks he is. You don’t see Arnold second-guessing himself. Instead, you see him act ridiculously in movies (or in Republican Party cheerleadering stints), and then acknowledge as much in interviews. He’s such an enthusiastic and self-deprecating bad actor such a good sport that it’s difficult to dis him entirely. (For all you know, he’s acting during these goofy self-revelatory moments as well, but to pursue that avenue seems a tad too meta for this inquiry.)
Arnold one of those stars with whom you feel on a first-name basis offered just such a performance last week on MTV’s Total Request Live, where he yucked it up with host Carson Daley while pitching his new movie, End of Days and the CD soundtrack for same, featuring a longtime absent MTV favorite, Guns N Roses. The kids in the studio audience cheered Arnold, but his reception was tepid compared with that for Korn, Will Smith or the Backstreet Boys. But even the kids’ lukewarm response seemed fine with our man. He smiled and made fun of himself, weathered Carson’s wit (“Awesome!”) and waxed enthusiastic about the movie’s “cool” digital effects and “deep” story.
It doesn’t seem to matter that the story isn’t very deep at all. Everyone seems glad to see 52-year-old Arnold back on screen, five years after True Lies and two years after heart surgery. Cinematographer and director Peter Hyams (Capricorn One, Time Cop) picked up the project after James Cameron bailed, and the result is nothing new. Written by Andrew Marlowe (Air Force One), this silly millennial thriller is an exemplary cusinart project, lifting liberally from Arnold’s own oeuvre: the apocalyptic dread from The Terminator, the noble self-sacrifice from T2, the dedicated bodyguard from Eraser, the special-effected-transparent-wavy monster from Predator, the wisecracking partner from True Lies (Kevin Pollak in the Tom Arnold part), and the hero’s raging bullishness from Raw Deal and vengeance from Last Action Hero or Total Recall. It seems clear that Schwarzenegger’s rep precedes and enhances just about everything End of Days cooks up.
The film makes the most of this star-connection, knowing its audience trusts in Arnold to deliver what he does best, muscleman feats with lots of firepower. Before he even makes an appearance in End of Days, the scene is set for any drastic measures Mr. I’ll Be Back might be taking. The main ante upped here is the opponent is Satan Himself, who, in a prelude to the main action, takes the human form of an investment banker played by Gabriel Byrne. Unlike, say, the whiny Satan in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, this one is instantly extra-smooth, sure of himself sexually and every other way. His first move in Byrne’s body (hijacked by a transparent-wavy whoosh in the men’s room of an upscale NYC restaurant) is to grab a woman’s tit and stick his yucky tongue down her throat, after which he blows up the restaurant (and there’s not a peep from anyone during this whole escapade).
At around the same time, a newborn girl is selected because she has a devil’s mark on her arm, apparently to bear Satan’s child in 20 years, and upon this union, the world will end and the bad guys will rule the earth. Following a quick snake’s blood baptism by the definitively creepy Udo Kier, the girl is raised by some well-funded devil-worshiping guardians (considerably less campy than the Rosemary’s Baby crowd). When, as an adult, Christine York (played by Robin Tunney) is apprised of her fate, she’s understandably unnerved. Luckily, she’s been stairmastering and practicing martial arts, so she can beat back the first wave of attackers (a gang of priests wanting to assassinate her to prevent her upcoming tryst).
By now you’ve guessed that Christine’s savior will be Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger), a beat-to-shit alcoholic ex-cop whose wife and child were murdered by his enemies (shades of Martin Riggs in the Lethal Weapons). Once he appears, Christine pretty much turns into the fabled damsel in distress, because it is Cane’s show, all the way. Pissed off and bereft of faith (since God abandoned him, he’s done likewise), Cane has no reason to protect this girl except some unexplained instinct to do right. More precisely, he must defend her because he’s Arnold, the last action hero. Cane is also primed to learn a currently fashionable lesson about violence: it can’t solve everything (think: Eastwood’s Unforgiven, where the lesson isn’t so nearly as fun to watch as the ass-kicking he does while learning it).
But before that, Cane blows up a lot of shit and kills a bunch of thugs. In addition to whomping on those wacky priests, he tussles with Satan’s minions, who are, naturally, everywhere (including his cop friend, played by the always-imposing CCH Pounder). The minions pull off a great living dead effect, roving desolate streets and subway tracks at night with flashlights, moving as one big old anonymous and generally unthinking mass: they are, in a word, legion. Unsurprisingly, Cane takes several severe beatings along the way to his redemption. Satan is a sadistic fuck who dangles him from windows, throws him against walls, and leaves him hanging like a crucifixion so that a non-murder-minded priest (a fairly nimble-seeming Rod Steiger) can rescue him.
The film’s central thrust, as it were, is indeed Cane’s redemption. By which I mean, it’s Arnold’s redemption, by which I mean, it’s our redemption, those of us who count ourselves Arnold fans. The thing about being an Arnold fan is that it’s hard to push it too far. You have to be willing to take his cheeseball aspects in stride, much as he seems to. You have to accept that the object of your affection is simultaneously someone’s (even your) object of derision. You have to be able to accept his right-wing real life posturing, his fascist-inclined characters, his absurd body (which looks more human these days, now that he’s off steroids and lean from aging), and his outrageously orgasmic violence.
And this is what End of Days does best: it makes clear that Arnold’s days are numbered, that the days when megaviolent heroics are tired. Way tired. The film is about limitations, of faith, potency, arrogance, rage, and desire. It’s about the ways that big money, digitization, and commodification can make movies especially “event movies” like this one into one big anonymous mass. It’s about apocalypse as style: for all its thrilling pyrotechnics (the exploding subway scene is a predictably impressive set piece), the movie is dark, dirty, wet, urban, and depressing.
And what’s remarkable, given what you think you know about Arnold, is that he bears the full weight of this gloom. His face is haggard, his body is taut, his eyes are…, well, they’re sad. He even cries, when Satan shows Cane a scene from his previous life with happy wife and daughter about to be raped and gunned down by men in black and offers to “give it all back” if only Case will reveal Christine’s whereabouts. It’s a ridiculous notion, that Satan can’t track her down his own self, but Arnold’s breaky-face tears almost make it worth the excruciating senselessness.
What all this means is that, despite being a movie that can’t hold itself together on any grid of logic or meaning, End of Days comes up with a rudimentary analysis of the Arnoldian Self as it works in the culture. You go in knowing this Self is despicable, mean-spirited, jingoistic, and unspeakably retro, but you come out almost impressed by its self-exposure, its visibly fractured assumptions about masculinity and power. Perversely, End of Days thematizes its own vulgarities and fissures.