The last action zero
Eight years have passed since Terminator 2, otherwise known as the last Arnold Schwarzenegger movie worth a damn. Since then, he has appeared in one half-decent actioner (James Cameron's wink-wink True Lies), one pale imitation of a pale imitation (Eraser, which is what its script was written with), and a parade of often witless self-parodies (Junior, Jingle All the Way, and Batman and Robin). Worse, he and Sylvester Stallone and their aging action-figure ilk have been pushed to the margins by a younger breed of big-screen hero. The world, gorged on The Matrix and John Woo movies and DreamCast games, has grown weary of watching middle-aged men creak through one more empty movie in which shit blows up -- and not with a bang, but with a dull thud.
Schwarzenegger has long seemed like a man who seemed to be in on the joke -- only, he never really got it (maybe he didn't understand it since it was, ya know, in English). He's at once ass-kicker and punchline, a man who can't tell the difference between grin and groan. When you're bigger than life, you simply have further to fall...all the way to hell, it turns out, in End of Days. It figures. At the end of the millennium, Hollywood thinks what we really want to see is The Terminator fighting Satan. Turns out Holyfield-Lewis is a better match.
End of Days follows exactly the same trajectory as director Peter Hyams' most dreadful The Relic, one in a line of indistinguishable monster-in-a-museum movies. Here's the outline, for those without Cinemax: Establish a simple premise (say, Satan needs a wife), 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) wants to get his hands on Christine (Details covergirl Robin Tunney). Seems she could be the anti-Christ, and Satan's looking for a little anti-nookie. Therefore, the goal is to keep the two apart, lest their union lead to the destruction of the world, blah blah blah.
Yet it takes an hour of screen time for Schwarzenegger (playing an ex-cop named Jericho Cane, which is so very subtle) and his wise-cracking partner, Kevin Pollak (Byrne's Usual Suspect co-star), to rendezvous with Tunney -- and, subsequently, Satan. In the meantime, Schwarzenegger goes into several self-destructive rages; he's apparently channeling Mel Gibson's suicidal widower from Lethal Weapon. Then, of course, there's plenty dimestore 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: Either take it seriously and remake The Exorcist -- which Byrne has already done once this year -- or render everything so extreme the audience doesn't care what happens so long as a wise-cracking muscleman kicks the devil's tail. Unfortunately, this movie sinks in the middle ground. Think of this as Rosemary's Baby as produced by Joel Silver -- lots of stuff blows up, most of it in the audience's face. It's fun for a moment, but pure hell in the long run.
The film opens in 1979, when Christine is born. The baby is promptly whisked away to a dark basement, where a pentagram-wearing Dr. Abel (Udo Kier) proceeds to slice a live rattlesnake in half and feed the baby the snake's blood (sadly, the German-born Kier and Schwarzenegger never meet onscreen for a battle of the accents). Flash forward 20 years later, to our first meeting with Jericho. 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?" Ooooh, that devil.
And Satan, when he's not blowing stuff up or urinating inflammable petroleum, is like a Hollywood agent from Hades (which is actually a Los Angeles suburb). He refers to the Bible as "an overblown press kit" and considers 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." That, of course, is why he's the devil.
There's nothing wrong with this kind of lunacy, of course; there's simply too little of it. Nothing worse than a silly movie that takes itself seriously, that bores us to death while we wait for the finale that comes too late. Couldn't Satan arrange for some of his followers to fight Jericho earlier in the movie, so there would 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 got there, like, first)? And does anyone care about endless scenes of Arnold bemoaning his lost family and drinking? No -- this is what we call filler.
That said, all is not lost, just most. End of Days perks up considerably in the third act, with myriad crashes, explosions, and blood -- the usual. 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 Spawn movie). And, let's face it, there's something to be said for a movie in which Schwarzenegger gets crucified. Course, it ain't the first time -- and, when you see this hell-bound sucker, it won't be the last.
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