How big is Arnold Schwarzenegger? Forget the international body-building titles, the above-even-the-director credit lines, the preview ads that read only: "Schwarzenegger – December 1999". In End of Days, Arnold faces his biggest foe ever – Satan himself. But even with a large dose of his trademark grimacing, grappling and gunfire, Arnold can’t save these Days.
The film takes place over the last four days of this century, and takes almost that long to establish its plot line. Schwarzenegger plays Jericho Cane, an alcoholic and cynical ex-New York cop who left the force after organized crime retaliation for his testimony against some highly-placed baddies resulted in the murder of his wife and daughter. Along with his sidekick (Kevin Pollack) he now works for a high-tech, high-priced security company. They’re protecting a Wall Street investment banker when a rooftop sniper takes a few potshots. The sniper turns out to be a Catholic priest, and Jericho (where do they come up with these names?) ties the sniper to – what else – a sinister plot. A couple of them, actually.
Turns out that the Devil’s in New York to celebrate the Millennium, and he’s even hornier than usual. Gabriel Byrne is the investment banker, whose body Satan has appropriated for use during his time here on Earth. Satan needs a body for an unholy purpose – he’s in search of nubile Christine York (Robin Tunney) who twenty years ago was born and anointed specifically for the purpose of serving as his mate. Satan’s mission is to have sex with Christine sometime during the waning hour of the century. If he succeeds, the gates to the netherworld will be opened and all Hell will – well… you know. Not only is Satan in search of Christine, but so are a cadre of Catholic Guards – they’ve been recruited by a renegade Vatican Cardinal who figures that the best defense is a good offense, and that Christine should be killed before Satan can have his way with her. So to protect Christine, Arnold not only has to fight The Baddest Guy of All, but some good guys as well. What’s a savior to do?
For a story line involving The End of The World As We Know It, there’s little suspense, and any surprises are largely of the "yowling cat jumping out off a just-opened refrigerator" variety. The acting is mostly pale carbon copies of better work done elsewhere. Al Pacino’s Old Scratch in The Devil’s Advocate stirred up cauldrons of brimstone and bluster. Here, Gabriel Byrne seems more bemused than Beelzebub. In The Craft Robin Tunney played a suburban witch with cunning energy, but as Byrne’s satanic squeeze she’s required only to look perkily fetching and scream "NO!!!" every five minutes. Rod Steiger, as a Catholic priest, is on hand to issue the obligatory obtuse and stentorian pronouncements and warnings. Arnold for once just looks… tired. For all the firepower, his Jericho Cane exhibits little spark, and the patented Schwarzenegger action-film quips are largely missing. When he finally tells Satan to "Go to Hell", you cringe – even Arnold seems embarrassed to be mouthing this tripe.
Director Peter Hyams (here also serving as his own director of photography) started his media career as a Chicago TV anchor, so it’s perhaps not surprising that his films (Capricorn One, Outland) have always seemed better suited to the smaller screen. End of Days suffers from the same ailments – Hyams’ close-ups are too-intimate, his shot framing claustrophobic. Action scenes are mostly set pieces, and an opening stuntfest involving a chase across rooftops with Arnold rappelling out of a helicopter was remarkably energy-free.
Just as Stan Lee is held to different standards than Seurat, so is it with movies – a film doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to be hugely entertaining. End of Days tries to be epic in scope but only results in committing the one unpardonable action movie sin. Its Hell is boring. And it’s boring as Hell.
– Bob Aulert