End Of Days

Flat yet watchable rumble between Arnie and Satan fuelled by pre-millennial angst.

Released in 1999, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 28 Jul 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Arnold Schwarzenegger stands, imposing as ever, M16 assault rifle with M203 under-barrel grenade launcher gripped firmly in hand. It's a familiar and comfortable image. Only he's in a church. His face a picture of emotional bewilderment, he stares questioningly at a statue of Jesus before seemingly coming to some unknown understanding, casting his weapon aside as he does. What madness is this?! What evil force is at work to prevent me waking from this hideous nightmare? Problem for us is we're not dreaming; problem for Arnie is he's just renounced violence on the verge of facing his most dangerous foe yet...Satan himself.

You or I might find our last moment of comfort at such a time by wielding said weapon in a vaguely threatening manner before being impeccably annihilated. Not so the Big Man, for this is the End of Days, and when your career is hanging by a thread you've gotta have faith! Coming as it did at such a critical phase in Arnie's career, End of Days perhaps fittingly parallels his situation at that time in many ways; a forty-something run down clich? pointing the barrel of the Hollywood gun at his head discovers redemption can only follow faith, although arguably his screen persona has more relative success than many might suggest of the man himself.

The film opens in Vatican City circa 1979 with the revelation that the child who will bear the offspring of the Antichrist will be born that day. There is much understandable discontent amongst temple-types before cutting to a hospital in the heart of Manhattan. Sure enough a child is born that bears the mark of the chosen one, and before being returned to her mother is whisked away to the basement for some satanic inauguration by a Head Priest of the Occult (Udo Kier; I knew there was something shifty about that bugger).

Fast forward twenty years and something is brewing beneath the streets of Manhattan; something that causes sewer gas to combust and lots of cars to explode in True Hollywood Fashion. From the flames emerges a shifting translucent shape that promptly enters a nearby restaurant toilet unseen and possesses the body of The Man (Gabriel Byrne). After a bit of thrashing around on the floor he exits the bathroom, grabs the breast of the nearest female, sticks his tongue down her throat (all of which she seems mysteriously at ease with) and exits the restaurant just in time for it to explode behind him in a massive conflagration. Spooky...

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Enter down-and-out personal security officer Jericho Cane. He's on the edge, man. His wife and daughter were murdered by hoods working for a crime kingpin against whom he testified some time before. Alcoholic, suicidal, unshaven for days and eating smoothies made of fruit, veg and pizza slices (I shit you not), he is kept from falling into oblivion by his partner Chicago (Kevin Pollack playing hackneyed light relief to Arnie's depressing straight guy). The pair head off to protect a client who turns out to be Byrne. An attempt on his life by a sniper is foiled by Cane and Chicago, and after a brief rooftop chase the shooter quite unexpectedly turns out to be a priest who forces Cane into shooting him in self defence.

Understandably baffled by this, Cane and Chicago set about investigating the circumstances of the failed assassination and the trail soon leads them to Christine York (Robin Tunney). The two detectives aren't the only ones interested in Christine mind you; moments before Jericho and Chicago arrive she is almost executed in ritualistic style by some decidedly anxious clerical types in suits and shades. Needless to say Big Arnie spoils their day with the help of his Glock and some increasingly wicked stubble, but before anyone can crack open the bubbly, up shows The Man amidst lots of flames and things blowing up, unfortunately including Chicago and his van.

Forced into hiding with Christine, Jericho seeks the help of Father Kovack (a decidedly embarrassed looking Rod Steiger) who explains to them the prophecy of Satan's return and the coming of the Antichrist who is to be brought into the world, it seems, by Christine. She must be kept safe from horny old Nick until after midnight on New Year's Eve when he will no longer be able to consummate the union, and Cane reckons his 9mm is much better than faith alone in a scrap. So he sets out to protect Christine, the world and his drinking habit from Beelzebub whilst no doubt finding salvation from his woes along the way.

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At the time of release End Of Days was widely acknowledged as make-or-break time for Arnie. His last bona fide hit was five years previously in 1994's True Lies. Since then he'd seen Junior arrive still-born, Eraser all but rubbed out, Jingle All The Way greeted by a critical and commercial avalanche, and the uber-rotten Batman and Robin, in which he played Mr. Freeze, receive a reception so frosty you had to wear gloves to open any film magazine featuring a review. Things were looking bleak and it was clear that he was going to have to push the boat out a little and try something daring. So let's have him playing a complete action movie stereotype. Doh!

Having said that, as clich?d as his character may be, it still represents something of an upping of the acting stakes for the Austrian Oak. Your heart has to go out to the guy as he makes a very decent attempt at delivering some reasonably serious dialogue only to have the thespian rug pulled out from under him by that cumbersome accent. His tendency to overuse the same disbelieving/bewildered look throughout the whole film also dampens his diversity a little, but on the whole this is a refreshing shift in gear for a man who previously occupied only two dimensions. A lot of his dialogue seems terribly tired, but Arnold certainly gives it his best shot.

Perhaps the most testing scene is when Byrne pays him a visit in his apartment to illustrate how he could have his wife and child back if only he would surrender Christine. It's certainly a crunch moment and don't you know he just about manages a respectable turn, hampered mostly by some dubious dialogue; "You're a choir boy compared to me!" he roars at Byrne, which many would argue is a somewhat unlikely line for anyone to deliver to Satan himself.

Elsewhere Tunney manages to be purely functional, which isn't really her fault considering the script pays her lip service at best. Considering how important a character she is and the tumultuous upbringing Christine has endured, End of Days really shows it's derivative roots by largely ignoring dialogue in favour of having her dragged around by the hero for most of the film. Likewise Pollack's wisecracking buddy role might as well be part of the set for all the standout qualities with which it is embellished. One gets the distinct feeling Pollack is here for the payday and not even the prospect of playing the Devil's bitch can animate him beyond a few mumbled sarcasms.

Easily the biggest waste however is Byrne. Handed the ultimate bad guy role on a plate, he is happy simply to walk around smirking and emerging from flames whilst offing various expendables in a variety of needlessly gratuitous ways (a nod to Udo Kier for checking out in quite the most unexpected and ridiculous way). Wether this was his own choice, which I doubt, or at the direction of Hyams is unclear, but rarely has such lack of enthusiasm been evident, and this must rank as one of the poorest Satan portrayals ever committed to film.

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Throw some decidedly ropey effects into the mix (one of which involving a dream sequence where Byrne lays a mother and daughter during which they merge into the form of Tunney seems bizarrely unfinished, with elements of bluescreen still visible in the background) and pretty much all of the spectacle vanishes from a film that was promoted as just that. With all due respect, try as the Big Man might you know you're in trouble when an action film with Arnie in it boasts his performance as one of the better elements.

That's not to say End of Days does everything badly, it's just that such a heavy burden of clich? and apparent apathy from most involved would be taxing enough on most movies, but spells disaster when someone's career is potentially on the line. That he scraped through this definitely says more about Arnie's tenacity than the quality of the film, a point emphasised by his continuing survival through misfires like The 6th Day and Collateral Damage.

By the end of the movie you'll either be apathetically munching your popcorn or joining in with Arnie's cry of "Help me God!". I shan't spoil the denouement for you, suffice to say it also represents a departure for our hero and marks perhaps his greatest moment of screen heroism yet (Terminator 2 aside, since robots can't be heroic before anyone tries to correct me). If I were feeling harsh I'd perhaps only award this 2 marks, but since I have a soft spot for Arnold's attempt here to try some serious scenery chewing I'm going to award it 3. End of Days is ultimately flat, pointless and heavily stereotyped, conforming to the rule that states the bigger the budget you give Peter Hyams the bigger the cockup he'll make. It is still, however, frequently entertaining and occasionally shocking, and often we ask for nothing more.

Craig Disko has awarded this movie 3 out of 5 Arbitrary Disko Units.

Peter Hyams
Cast list:
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Jericho Cane)
Gabriel Byrne (The Man/Satan)
Robin Tunnney (Christine York)
Kevin Pollack (Chicago)