WFTB Score: 7/20
The plot: As the Millennium approaches, the Devil walks tall in New York, searching for a mate chosen by her birthmark twenty years before. As The Vatican quibble over whether to protect or kill Christine, it falls to unhappy security guard Jericho to look after the vulnerable young woman. Given that they are both mentally fragile, and their enemies are both numerous and powerful, how can they possibly prevent the next thousand years belonging to the forces of darkness?
I’m sure it’s no commentary on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting prowess that his most successful role (by far) has been that of an emotionless killing machine. Indeed, being a muscle-bound beefcake with a thick accent should be no barrier to displaying a full emotional range: just look at Stallone in Copland. Well, maybe that’s not such a great example, but in theory it can only be a good thing that the Governator gets to stretch his thespian talents.
End of Days begins in 1979 with the birth of a baby girl called Christine. She bears a birthmark which confirms her as the devil’s mate at the time of the new millennium and is anointed by satanic nurse Lily (Miriam Margolyes), who later becomes the girl’s stepmother. Meanwhile, signs of the devil’s arrival are noted at the Vatican and whilst the pope trusts in God and orders that no harm comes to Christine, others favour a more direct, deadly solution.
Fast forward twenty years and the devil duly arrives in New York, inhabiting the body of banker Gabriel Byrne in order to find and impregnate Christine, thereby securing a thousand years of Hell on Earth. Christine (Robin Tunney) has grown up suffering visions of Byrne’s rampant horniness, and as New Year’s Eve approaches her life gets a whole lot weirder.
And Mr S? Schwarzenegger is Jericho, a suicidal security guard not coping with the violent death of his wife and daughter to the extent that he’s about to shoot himself in the head when his buddy Bobby (Kevin Pollak) comes to collect him for a job protecting – as chance would have it – ‘The Man’ (Byrne). After a seemingly mad priest (Thomas Aquinas!) takes a pot shot at Byrne, Jericho’s mind is taken off his troubles by pursuing the cleric, and then following clues left at his squalid abode that lead Jericho to a meeting with Christine.
As the countdown to New Year continues, Jericho becomes Christine’s protector against those who want to procreate with her against her will and those who would kill her to prevent the apocalypse coming about. The hardest part is finding someone to trust, since Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) at the local church can only offer a modicum of protection and Jericho’s associates are acting very strangely. Jericho refuses a Faustian pact to have his old life back in exchange for divulging Christine’s hiding place, but defeating the Prince of Darkness involves more than a renewal of faith: it also requires some bloody big bullets.
There are a number of genuinely half-decent ideas in End of Days. The problem is, they’ve all had at least one previous outing on the silver screen already. Most obviously the film takes its near-contemporary The Devil’s Advocate as its horror-lite inspiration, though naturally there are liberal sprinklings from The Omen and The Exorcist, and Gabriel Byrne (very much Pacino-lite throughout) lends Steiger the famous quote from The Usual Suspects.
The whole thing comes across as a hotchpotch of better films’ ideas, with an orientation towards action rather than story as you might expect given Schwarzenegger’s comfort zone. Unfortunately, with all the guns, fighting, massive explosions and so on Tunney’s Christine is almost entirely lost; she’s pretty, but barely makes any impact amidst the ‘Arnie vs the Devil’ ballyhoo. Also, there’s considerable friction between the more ambitious plot elements and the dumb action stuff, resulting in a number of awkward scenes – not least the unintentionally hilarious sight of Arnie beating up Miriam Margolyes (or, hopefully, a short, stocky stuntman).
The other issue lies with Schwarzenegger. Whilst he’s running, punching and toting guns, his Jericho is a believable enough character (though as a concession to age, much of the stunt work is done by others). Unfortunately, he is tasked to pile various other emotions on top of his willingness to chase, shoot and fight, such as being depressed, suffering a crisis of faith or being amazed by supernatural events.
In particular, the scene where the Devil tempts Jericho with the illusion of having his wife and family back tests the acting chops of both. Byrne by no means distinguishes himself, but Schwarzenegger is all at sea. As usual, Arnie exhibits some muscle-bound charisma, but it’s telling that in the final analysis the film gives up any pretence of cleverness and pits him (plus the world’s biggest bullets) against a computer-generated devil-insect-monster from hell. This is, I realise, exactly the sort of climax action fans will be looking for, and why not; but I think the film’s religious ramblings and the sight of the last action hero moping will have turned many of them off long before the film switches fully into Predator mode.
In some respects it’s cruel to critique a film as knowingly dumb, as deliberately shallow and as blatantly derivative as End of Days: but these things have to be done. It’s too dark and patchy for an action film, not filled with remotely enough shock and gore to be a bona fide horror, and as a meditation on faith in the late 20th/early 21st Centuries – well, you’re having a laugh. Actually, that is the film’s saving grace: for whilst it is all kinds of rubbish, for better or worse you won’t be able to watch End of Days with a straight face.