End of Days
Reviewed by Beth Hannan Rimmels
End of Days has to qualify as the perfect epitome of a high-concept film. You can just hear the pitch "Arnold Schwarzenegger fights Satan" and imagine the studio executives salivating. Of course, high-concept movies have also been much maligned, which isnt entirely appropriate in this case.
Sure, it looks like a crass attempt to cash in on end-of-the-millennium hysteria (and does to some degree), but I have to give some credit for the fact that Arnold and the director discussed the script with religious scholars. While no one will mistake End of Days for a religious documentary, appropriate focus has been placed on the need for faith to truly defeat evil.
According the film, the Prince of Darkness is loosed upon the earth once every thousand years. If he can conceive a child with the correct woman in the final hour before the turn of the millennium (ignoring the fact that experts insist the new millennium begins at 12:01 a.m. January 1, 2001, not 2000), he will then be able to rule the earth through that child, who, of course, is the Antichrist, for a thousand years.
Christine York (Robin Tunney) is the innocent woman unwittingly chosen by Satan to be her bride. Arnolds character, ex-cop Jericho Cane, becomes involved when a would-be assassin turns out to be a priest desperately trying to avert the Apocalypse and a prophecy that has driven him mad. The assassination target is an investment banker (Gabriel Byrne) possessed by the devil to do the dirty work leading to the year-end countdown.
The supporting cast is impressive even though only Kevin Pollack as Canes best friend and partner gets decent screen time. Pollacks dry delivery is a perfect counterpoint to Canes frustrated obsession. Rod Steiger, CCH Pounder, Miriam Margolyes and Udo Kier are effective and welcome costars but take a backseat to Byrne and Schwarzenegger.
The film is an odd mix. In some ways, taking on the ultimate personification of evil is a natural progression for Arnolds career after defeating bad guys like aliens and shape-shifting robotic assassins. But the religious focus that keeps the film from being tacky makes for a different tone than Arnolds usual films. Cane is a very flawed, tortured person. This isnt the unstoppable Terminator or the nearly superhuman Conan. This man desperately wants to give into Satans temptation (a great scene between Byrne and Schwarzenegger, by the way) but cant. Bigger ammunition might slow down the devil, but it wont defeat him. To do that, Cane has to do something that scares him more than Satan: look inside himself.
And while End of Days has been slightly criticized for the actions of "the Vatican knights" in the film, its clear these men of the cloth are acting out of the best of intentions (which could literally pave their way to hell). Its also counterbalanced by the faith and wisdom shown by the unnamed pontiff (Mark Margolis) and Steigers Father Novak.
A few plot points are never explained, such as why Satans spirit appears to be searching for one particular man before he takes possession of Byrne. If it was looking for that body in particular, as it appears, why not explain the reason? The Christ references to Cane are a bit overdone at times but could have been worse. The final confrontation in a church has Satan doing something that makes perfect sense...except for the fact that he didn't do it sooner. I can think of a reason as to why not (besides the fact that it would have made the movie much shorter), but writer Andrew W. Marlowe never explains it. Yet despite these glitches, the story holds together reasonably well and the action is competent and exciting.
The ending might not have the cathartic rush some Arnold fans prefer, but its entirely appropriate. Besides, theres no reason why he should dispatch every bad guy with a quip. Thoughtful endings and Arnold Schwarzenegger films do not have to be mutually exclusive.
The biggest problem with End of Days is that it doesn't seem to know what it wants to be. It's not a good vehicle for Arnold to stretch his acting skills because no one will take it seriously for that. It tries too hard to be serious to please the fans who are into pure action. It's certainly not a religious film in the normal sense. Instead, it's a mishmash of all of the above that works if you have the right attitude going in. Not the best film Arnold has ever made, End of Days is also not the worst. An enjoyable action film blended with religious weight, its a darkly entertaining and quirky argument for the power of faith.
Review © 1999 Beth Hannan Rimmels. Accompanying photographs © 1999 Universal Pictures. Photo credit: Zade Rosenthal, Peter Iovino.