Hollywood’s most recent millennial offering is End of Days, the latest in a long line of apocalyptic visions that have seen the planet threatened by the likes of aliens, asteroids, tidal waves, even bats. This time, however, the threat is the ultimate evil of Satan himself (played by Gabriel Byrne). He frees himself from Hell in December 1999 to wander New York City in search of a chosen lover. His having sex with this woman will bring about the End of Days, the Biblical Judgment Day, and will start a New World Order run by Satan.
Ah-nold is our hero, Jericho Cane, a depressed ex-New York cop turned security guard who is hired to protect Satan’s human form. An assassination attempt on the Dark One’s life by a righteously insane priest draws Jericho into the world-threatening events taking place around him. He soon finds himself protecting Christine (Robin Tunney) from both the unwanted advances of Beelzebub and the murderous intentions of a radical sect of Vatican Knights, who logically assume killing Christine will prevent her from sleeping with Satan and, thus, save the world. The resulting action has Arnold shooting priests and pagans alike in an effort to protect Christine and, incidentally, all humanity.
Like other apocalyptic films before it, End of Days is not so much about the end of the world as it is interested in alleviating any cultural anxiety about the threat of such an event. Who better to solve this Y2K mess than Arnold Schwarzenegger? The real difference comes in the film’s religious focus. Nuclear terrorists and interstellar armies have threatened the planet in earlier films, but a month before D-Day, this film is exploring a much more culturally ingrained fear. The film draws largely from Catholic iconography in its visual imagery but all major religions posit a similar doomsday scenario. End of Days knows this, and also knows that the closer we get to midnight December 31, the more these end-of-the-world religious musings turn into outright fears.
This is not to say that End of Days is a particularly good movie, though, as an action film starring Schwarzenegger, End of Days is above par in its thematic and special-effects scopes. Clubbing an alien Predator was one thing, but going after Satan with a rocket launcher is something to behold. As the tortured Jericho Cane, Schwarzenegger is at his predictable best mowing down cultists with machine guns and at his predictable worst conveying any real emotion. In a scene where he mourns his lost wife and daughter, it’s hard to tell whether Schwarzenegger is crying or figuring out long division in his head. Still, there is a certain comfort in his consistency as an action star. Sure the guy can’t act, but there’s no one you’d rather see more when it comes to administering compound fractures to evil lackeys.
As Christine, Robin Tunney fills out the action genre’s flat role of the endangered maiden. Though a Schwarzenegger vehicle allows her to be little more than the fragile, vulnerable girl in need of rescue, Tunney does the best with what she’s given. Her most striking moments come in the Satanic visions plaguing Christine as Satan gets closer and closer to arranging their unholy union. The twisted, computer enhanced images of her waking nightmares also go a long way in communicating Christine’s tenuous grip on a frightening reality.
The surprise in this film is Gabriel Byrne. Playing Satan might be an appealing role for an actor of Byrne’s caliber, but to do so with a script as one-dimensional as Days takes true talent or desperate need for cash. And Byrne delivers, for the most part. Satan’s true evil comes across in the subtle smirks and gestures that Byrne employs. His smile is infectious and malicious at the same time and his fury, for the majority of the film, simmers and bubbles like lava just below Byrne’s skin. When underplaying the role, Byrne is much more convincing than an over-the-top Al Pacino in Devil’s Advocate.
Kevin Pollak is also solid as Jericho’s security guard buddy Chicago. Pollak’s deadpan comic relief is essential in a film that graphically crucifies every third character, and his brief screen time with Gabriel Byrne recalls the brilliance of The Usual Suspects. End of Days goes so far as to lift a line from the earlier film (“The biggest trick Satan ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”) but falls short of Suspects’ plot-twisting genius with its formulaic style and its gaudy, big budget spectacle.
End of Days is a good movie when it knows what it’s supposed to be: a slick and shiny action movie with lots of violent eye candy and a neat plotline. The film falters when it tries to plumb the deeper depths of religious faith and skepticism. Schwarzenegger may be the guy you want in hand-to-hand combat with the Lord of the Flies, but he is certainly not the best choice for a film exploring the existential notions of God and the human condition. Credit where it’s due though, End of Days is a fast-paced, seamless film that does action as well as action can be done. And really, the most glaring distraction is not in the film, but its soundtrack. Even after receiving a discount coupon for the soundtrack with my ticket, I still can’t bring myself to make the purchase. As it advertises the triumphant rebirth of Guns N’ Roses and Axl Rose, one might well wonder if the CD does a better job than the film in documenting the return of Satan’s evil presence on Earth.