Wednesday November 24, 1999
Arnold Schwarzenegger's new loud, goofy, roller-coaster ride of a movie, Satan shows himself to be such an incompetent boob that, if these truly are the last days, we at least know the devil isn't to blame.
In "End of Days," Lucifer travels to Manhattan in search of his chosen bride but has a hard time finding her. (Neither he nor his minions think to check the phone book.) Then when he finally lays hands on her, he lets Schwarzenegger come and take her away.
The problem may be that he's spreading himself too thin. That was Satan cavorting in bed with Saddam Hussein in that "South Park" movie last summer. He took the form of a lascivious Al Pacino in "The Devil's Advocate" two years ago, and he reportedly makes an appearance in the upcoming "Lost Souls." And you didn't even know he had a SAG card.
Of the slew of movies that seek to capitalize on the millennial fascination with all things spiritual or apocalyptic, "End of Days" is the big-budget picture that tries to blow the rest away. Schwarzenegger vs. Satan on the streets of New York--how's that for high concept? It's an inherently silly--not to mention opportunistic--premise, and director Peter Hyams and writer Andrew W. Marlowe don't try to camouflage their story's vast gaps in logic. They're betting that if they keep it speeding along and throw in enough action and thrills, audiences won't care that it's all nonsense.
In "Days," Lucifer inhabits the body of a rich industrialist played by Gabriel Byrne so that he can find and impregnate the woman destined to bear his child (Robin Tunney). He has to do it in the last hour before the end of the century, but he's too cool to ever get in a hurry. He's a randy devil, too, that Satan. Got a roving eye. First thing he does after he gets his new hunky host body is boldly grope and kiss some woman in a restaurant. Second thing he does is he blows the place up after walking out. Maybe the soup was cold.
That tells you all you need to know about the way Ultimate Evil is characterized in this movie. He's walking the Earth to start the thousand-year reign of evil on Earth, or some such thing, but he spends most of his time either eyeing the babes or coming up with clever ways to cause mayhem. He's Satan as a 14-year-old boy might imagine him. (Catch the adolescently cool way he announces his arrival at the heavily guarded home of his intended.)
The net effect is that it makes Satan seem like a lot less fearsome foe than, say, Y2K. At least the trouble that may cause will be felt on more than just a few city blocks. The explosions and murders Satan commits in New York City barely get mentioned on the news.
Schwarzenegger plays a character with the unlikely biblical-sounding name of Jericho Cane, but it hardly matters because Schwarzenegger always plays Schwarzenegger. He's a high-tech bodyguard and former cop who stays a few steps ahead of the police in figuring out that a renegade band of Catholic priests (don't ask) is trying to kill the devil's intended bride. The bad priests, for their part, are a few steps ahead of the ineffectual good priests, who want to save her. Meanwhile, Satan and his band of zombie-like followers are also on her tail.
(So as not to rile the Catholic Church apparently, the pope is shown on several occasions in Rome, mouthing pieties and thinking good thoughts.)
The filmmakers knew that if they made their Satan any smarter and more powerful than, say, a T-1000 cyborg, then Schwarzenegger wouldn't stand a chance of beating him, and they wouldn't have a movie. (As it is, though, it won't spoil anything to say the 52-year-old muscle-bound former cardiac patient holds his own against the Evil One.)
That was an intentional reference to "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Among the numerous movies from which this one draws inspiration ("Dracula" and "The Devil's Advocate" are among the others), the two "Terminator" movies rank at the top of the list. This isn't a criticism.
James Cameron doesn't make James Cameron movies anymore, so somebody's got to do it. Hyams has got most of the trappings right--the wall-to-wall action, the gripping chase, the loud explosions, eye-catching special effects--and he seems to know instinctively that an overgrown behemoth of a movie like this needs a strong beating heart to get it going and take it to another level. But, try as he might, he can't invest "End of Days" with one.
The movie is as bloodless as a cyborg, and it feels as if it has been assembled according to diagrams supplied by someone who studied every successful sci-fi action thriller and then multiplied the findings by 10. So, when the formula calls for an injection of soul, Hyams and Marlowe go into overdrive. They give us Schwarzenegger, the superhuman action hero, in mourning over the deaths of his wife and daughter. Schwarzenegger grappling with issues of faith. Schwarzenegger fighting the temptation to sell out to the devil for the chance to have his family back.
All of these moral crises provide a string of tiny set pieces in which the characters are asked to make choices, which makes this movie seem in some ways like an action-thriller version of "The Last Temptation of Christ," only without God (he or she stays strangely silent through all of this). But perhaps more important from a storytelling standpoint, it provides a half-baked reason why Satan doesn't just snap Arnie's neck or ram a crucifix into his skull, the way he dispatches a couple of the priests. Satan keeps him alive so that he can try to capture his soul. Otherwise, the movie would've lasted maybe 15 minutes.
Not until the very end, after Satan shows his true form does "End of Days" toss aside the contemporary action movie rule book and make an unexpected move. It's a good move, too--one true to the sketchy outlines of Schwarzenegger's character, and one meant to resound with the movie's implied themes of redemption and faith.
For it to work, though, the filmmakers needed to show that these issues meant something to them besides making nifty plot points. They don't, and so the ending resonates for maybe 10 seconds before it gets replaced in your mind by questions like: How did that statue of Jesus get back on its pedestal after you saw Satan knock it down?
End of Days, 1999. R for intense violence and gore, a strong sex scene and language. A Universal Pictures and Beacon Pictures production. Director and cinematographer Peter Hyams. Producers Armyan Bernstein and Bill Bordon. Executive producers Marc Abraham and Thomas A. Bliss. Screenplay Andrew W. Marlowe. Production designer Richard Holland. Editor Steve Kemper. Composers John Debney. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jericho Cane. Gabriel Byrne as Satan. Kevin Pollak as Chicago. Robin Tunney as Christine York. Rod Steiger as Father Kovak.