Back in the Eighties and early Nineties, the action hero was a staple of the big screen experience, thrilling audiences with their superhuman ability to mow down all the bad guys with an almost endless supply of bullets and pyrotechnics. Having the names Sylvester Stallone ("Daylight"), Steven Seagal ("Fire Down Below"), Jean-Claude Van Damme ("Universal Soldier: The Return"), Bruce Willis ("The Sixth Sense"), or Arnold Schwarzenegger on a movie's credits seemed to be a license for printing money, both at home and overseas. Unfortunately, in recent years, with the only exception being Willis, it seems that the stock values of these big action stars have been on a downhill slide, with their more recent star vehicles performing poorly at the box office. And though a number of these 'actors' still carry appreciable weight in the foreign markets, savvy audiences, who have developed a more discerning eye for quality product, are turning their attentions to the new action heroes and their more intelligent vehicles: Nicolas Cage ("The Rock"), John Travolta ("Face/Off"), and Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix"). Changing moviegoer tastes have also shifted to a greater emphasis on comedy, such as the surprise hits of recent years, "There's Something About Mary", "The Waterboy", and "Rush Hour".
Like his action brethren, Schwarzenegger's 'brand equity' has been in limbo as of late, as it has been a couple of years since we last saw the former Mr. Universe in a movie ("Batman & Robin" in 1997, and "Jingle All the Way" in 1996), which was due to his recovery from recent heart surgery, as well as some possible political aspirations. However, not willing to declare his movie career dead, Schwarzenegger has returned for another go at revitalizing his A-list status in "End of Days", an apocalyptic thriller where the almost unstoppable action hero goes up against Satan himself. Unfortunately, this big-budget offering (budgeted upwards of $150 million) may not be enough to jump-start his career, as it painfully shows the limitations of the actor and ridiculously falls back on the dated paradigms of your average 'Ah-nold' movie.
It is a few days before the new millennium in New York City, and though most of its denizens are fixated on their party plans and the dreaded Y2K bug, an evil force stirs beneath the streets. After a mysterious earthquake and series of explosions, Satan (Gabriel Byrne of "The Man in the Iron Mask") emerges from the subterranean depths, assumes human form and walks the city in search of his bride, which has been prophesized in the Book of Revelations. The woman he is in search of is Christine York (Robin Tunney of "The Craft"), a twenty-year old woman who has been troubled by inexplicable religious visions all her life. In order to bring an era of darkness upon Man, Satan must consummate his relationship with his new bride between the hour of 11pm and midnight on the last night of the year (even the characters in the movie realize how silly this is, as one of them asks 'Is that Eastern time?').
However, standing in the way of Satan's apocalyptic scheme is Jericho Cane (J.C., Jesus Christ, get it?), a former NYPD officer turned high-tech security guard. Having survived the brutal murder of his wife and child, Jericho (Schwarzenegger) is a complete burnout, an alcoholic on the verge of suicide who wantonly risks his life in the hopes of ending his own suffering. However, he finds a renewed sense of purpose when a mysterious shooting leads him and his partner (Kevin Pollak of "She's All That") hot on the trail to uncovering one thousand years of religious prophecy and the darkness that threatens to engulf mankind for all eternity. This, of course, leads to a showdown where the man with the most guns wins.
"End of Days" wavers unevenly between being a serious-minded horror-thriller and being a souped-up Ah-nold movie. On the one hand, the dialogue touches on issues of religion, faith, and prophecy, speculating the role that the Church would play in such a calamitous event. But on the other hand, laziness is in abundance as the script inconsistently handles the material, ridiculously allowing leaps of illogic and dumb one-liners to clutter up each scene. For example, the number of the Devil is now changed to '999' since St. John had 'dreamed the number upside down and backwards' when he wrote the Book of Revelations. Satan, though he is all-powerful, seems to have difficulty tracking down his bride and inexplicably decides to refrain from killing Jericho off right away, even though he has a penchant for killing everyone he meets within one scene (which often includes some gratuitous nudity, the staple of the Eighties action movie). Jericho's investigation is also a joke, as all the clues come too quickly and too easily. The final clue that you are watching an Ah-nold movie is that for the final showdown against Satan, Jericho goes into the armory and loads up on every machine gun, grenade, and explosive device that he can lay his hands on (when the supervisor asks "Where are you going?", he curtly replies "To do my job!").
Schwarzenegger's limited range as an actor is also apparent here. The more emotional scenes of the film (where Arnold must act angry) are laughable, as his typical over-the-top method of enunciating every syllable comes into play, and the scenes end up coming off as more parody than pathos. Unfortunately, it seems that Schwarzenegger is really on good for two things: playing emotionless robots (as in "The Terminator") and shooting guns.
About the only things tolerable in this overblown action extravaganza are Byrne and director Peter Hyams moody cinematography and groovy special effects. Byrne may not be as over-the-top as Pacino's turn as the Devil in "The Devil's Advocate", but he still manages to be both menacing and charismatic at the same time. With respect to the cinematography and special effects, they are also top-notch. A number of key scenes highlight this, namely a fiery chase in the New York subway system, a breathtaking helicopter chase through the streets of Manhattan, and the earth-shattering final confrontation in a church. But alas, great cinematography and special effects alone are not enough.
"End of Days" strives very hard to be a high-minded action-adventure, but ends up residing closer to camp than expected. Unless you are a die-hard Schwarzenegger fan (which means you also though "Raw Deal" was good), then movie may have enough to satiate your hunger. However, even in comparison to the better Ah-nold movies of the Eighties (including "Predator", "Commando", and "The Terminator"), "End of Days" is still a poor showing for the faded box-office strongman and just might be the last nail in the coffin that was his career.