Arnold looks old and tired on the screen: a middle-aged hero with a hush-hush history of heart failure. For him, End of Days is the end of an era whose Terminators have slowly melted into kind-hearted kindergarten cops, pregnant scientists and baffled last action heroes.
Arnold Schwarzenegger – or the institution Arnold has become – has mastered these narratives of redemption so well that, over the years, we have come to expect no more and no less from a Schwarzenegger movie. In his endearingly heavy-handed way, Arnold saves the world, again and again, from predators and interlopers, leaving behind more corpses than a cholera epidemic. Despite the impressive body count, though, his heroes are, generally, nice guys with superhuman strength and corky smiles.
But all of that changes in End of Days. Determined to reinvent himself, Arnold plays the part of Jericho Cane, an ex-cop turned security specialist who – between two hangovers and a delirium tremens – has to face Satan, the sly negotiator. The fact that, after having erased everything that moves, Arnold decides to take on the Angel of Darkness is not surprising. The fact that he tackles a role in which he has to act is the problem.
Director Peter Hyams (The Presidio, The Relic) takes this end-of-the-millennium business seriously: Subterranean passages explode; cathedrals collapse; the Vatican is in on it; and, in the role of the Devil, Gabriel Byrne (a priest torn between devotion and truth in Stigmata) has a drastic change of heart. But if Stigmata combines images of uncanny beauty with plot twists reminiscent of The Name of the Rose, End of Days has no redeeming quality.
For two long hours Arnold fumbles his way through an excruciatingly bad script, shooting at the Devil, pushing him under moving trains and hurling him out of windows, as if the latter’s immortality were a detail Arnold chooses to ignore. Only once – in a line so humorous we all assume someone other than the scriptwriter must have thought of it – does Arnold step out of character. If the Devil takes over the world at midnight, he asks, is that Eastern time?
For a split second we contemplate the absurdity of the situation: It doesn’t matter when the rest of the world celebrates the new millennium; the Antichrist can only be born in New York. Two or three other similar observations punctuate the dreariness, but, all in all, the Devil is the only one who has a good time.
And why wouldn’t he? "A cool, unpressured kind of businessman" (according to Byrne) with impeccable taste in clothes and women, he – unlike us – has a way out of this pathetic prophecy of doom.
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