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The last time Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in an apocalypse-theme action movie featuring a Guns N' Roses song, it was Terminator 2, the biggest and loudest action picture that had ever been seen. 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 and Robin). Fans have long been waiting for the "real" Arnold to emerge once again, the Austrian oak with the groan-inducing one-liners delivered in that unique accent of his, the man who seemed to be almost in on his own joke but never quite getting it. Most important, though, we've missed the plain and simple ass-kicking of the Schwarz's earlier days.
Given that director Peter Hyams managed temporarily to resuscitate Jean-Claude Van Damme's career 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 death match pitting Arnold against his toughest foe to date: Satan. Yes, there was hope. But how soon we forget 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, essentially, that Satan (Gabriel Byrne, still clad in Stigmata gear) wants to get his hands on Robin Tunney (The Craft; Niagara, Niagara). Because Satan is evil, his hands being on Robin Tunney would be a very bad thing. Therefore the goal is to keep the twain apart. It's as simple as that. Yet it takes an hour of screen time for Schwarzenegger and his wisecracking 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? Sad to say, this is about as deep as it gets.)
There are two ways to go with a movie like End of Days: One can either take it seriously and do The Exorcist on steroids, or make everything so extreme that the audience doesn't care what happens so long as a wiseass muscleman whoops butt (à la most of Schwarzenegger's earlier 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 born, for instance, the baby is promptly whisked away to a dark basement, where a pentagram-wearing Udo Kier proceeds to slice a live rattlesnake in half and feed the baby snake blood. (Sadly Kier and Schwarzenegger never meet onscreen for a "battle of the accents.") When we first meet Arnold (whose character's name is Jericho; did we mention that this movie is short on subtlety?), he's making himself a breakfast milkshake 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 not causing unfeasibly large explosions or urinating flammable petroleum, 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." He even quotes the Spice Girls: "Tell me what you want. Tell me what you really want." You half expect Tunney to hit him with, "If you wanna be my lover, you gotta get with my friends."
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 at least there'd be some action while we wait for him to figure things out? Does Tunney really have to give that "why must I be different?" speech? Is there a point to the woman with stigmata who's tied up in the church basement (other than to remind us that Stigmata was a similar film)? Does anyone care about endless scenes of Arnold bemoaning his lost family and drinking?
All is not lost, though. Like The Relic, End of Days perks up considerably in the third act, with lots of crashes, explosions, and blood. And 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 movie, Spawn).
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), but he also appears 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 gonna hang in there for the long term. Provided he can find better material than End of Days, of course.
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