In what will probably turn out to be the last lock-and-load artillery prep scene of the 20th century, Arnold Schwarzenegger, readying for his big showdown with the devil in End of Days, enters a room full of spiffy advanced weaponry and begins to arm himself, the rifle clicks amplified on the soundtrack into a bebop ritual of doom. Over the years, scenes like this one have become a demagogic touchstone of mass-movie culture—accompanied, inevitably, by frat-house whoops of triumph from the audience. Go, Arnold! Kick that devil’s ass! Only this time, the righteous testosterone feels a bit watered down. Arnold, cast as a weary ex-cop named Jericho Cane, gets beaten up, felled by a sniper, beaten up again, and generally treated like a damaged warrior who is out of his depth. As the movie demonstrates, all of his firepower isn’t going to stop the devil. So why, exactly, is Arnold gunning up? Because it’s time for him to get busy. Because that’s what Arnold Schwarzenegger does.
With its glossy urban grime, its millennial mumbo jumbo about the spirit that shall be loosed ”when the thousand years are over,” End of Days evokes a queasy déjà vu: It’s the apocalypse as rerun. The film invites us to ponder such lurid visions as a derelict assassin who keeps his tongue in a jar, a woman with gushing stigmata strapped down and writhing in a church basement, and a man crucified by medical scissors on the ceiling of a hospital suite. What do these comic-strip images of doomsday have to do with one another? Not much, except that they lend a note of solemn ”religious” gravity to what is, at heart, a rather deluxe exploitation movie.
Satan, it seems, has arrived on earth, inhabiting the body and the elegant black wardrobe of a Wall Street tycoon (he must have seen The Devil’s Advocate). Played by Gabriel Byrne, with an insinuating contemptuous gleam, he has come to sire a new, malevolent messiah, which he must do before the New Year’s Eve clock strikes midnight. His prospective mate? A young woman named Christine York (Robin Tunney), who, though innocent herself, was marked at birth with the sign of the Antichrist. (In the opening scene, she is baptized in rattlesnake blood by a cult of Satan’s followers.) Christine suffers from schizoid hallucinations, like a dreadlocked albino who terrorizes her on the subway before crumbling into fragments. End of Days, in other words, is an action thriller that warms over the Lucifer-chic dread of The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. The movie is so grimly fixated on the countdown to the end of the century in New York City that, at times, I began to wonder if the devil would turn out to be Dick Clark.
The director/cinematographer Peter Hyams, a veteran of such journeyman product as Capricorn One and Running Scared, gives End of Days a glistening night-bloom look, combining action and rot, low kicks and high prophecy. The movie is frequently silly, yet eminently more watchable than such leaden Schwarzenegger efforts as Eraser. Byrne, lounging with arrogance, his mouth poised in a soft smile, makes a dulcet-suave demon, playful in his very inhumanity, especially when he’s not shown the proper respect (his quick dispatching of a skateboard jerk is particularly satisfying). Still, I kept wondering why this supremely clever evil one, who navigates the cosmos with the greatest of ease, needed to skulk through every dirty corner of Manhattan just to locate poor Christine. The film is built on that sort of illogic. In one of the giddier dumb moments, Arnold’s Cane figures out that the name Christine York must mean…”Christ in New York.” (Yeah, so where did the damn w come from?)
That said, the shrewdest thing about End of Days is the way that it builds the notion of a vulnerable, weakened Schwarzenegger, in the wake of his well-publicized heart surgery, right into the movie. Here, he’s the anti-Terminator: a killing machine who, in order to save the world, must lay down his arms and embrace faith—that is, the limits of his strength. There are moments in End of Days when you feel that Arnold’s stuntman should have received co-billing, but then, an aging action star is a bit like an aging bombshell; there’s something noble in the way that he continues to flaunt what’s no longer so powerful. Besides, we’ve all been with Arnold too long now not to stand by him while he faces down the end of his days as the invincible image of Hollywood muscle. C+