End of Days (1999)
Directed by Peter Hyams
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunney, Kevin Pollak, Rod Steiger, CCH Pounder, Miriam Margolyes.
1999 118 minutes
Rated: (for violence, gore, profanity, nudity, and sex).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 27, 1999.
In Arnold Schwarzegger's very first starring role since 1996's "Eraser" (and not counting the embarrassing 1997 debacle "Batman & Robin"), Peter Hyams' "End of Days" is, on the one hand, an intelligent film choice, but on the other hand, a not-so-good one. In his role as ex-cop Jericho Cane, Schwarzenegger has more substance to work with than usual, because he is a washed-up, borderline alcoholic still grieving over the untimely murders of his wife and daughter. He handles his character well, and for someone who oftentimes is criticized for his thespian skills, he believably conveys the true loss of loved ones. The problem with "End of Days" isn't Schwarzenegger, and it isn't the nifty visual effects, or the other performances. No, the source of the dilemma stems squarely from the ham-handed screenplay, by Andrew W. Marlowe, which not only lays on the melodrama a little thick in the second half, but also wastes much of the opportunity to make a rousing, unforgettable, end-of-the-millenium thriller. As New Year's approaches and you'd like to check out a movie set on the eve of the 21st-century, rent one of the decade's most innovative, underrated films, 1995's "Strange Days."
Opening in NYC, circa 1979, a woman gives birth to a child, which is then briefly taken away from her to be involved in a snake sacrifice on the grungy basement level of the hospital. It seems this baby has been chosen as the one to be impregnated between the hours of 11 o'clock and midnight on December 31, 1999, thus ending the world. Yes, I'm sure this sounds silly so far, but at least a character wisely asks if they mean Eastern Standard Time. Switch forward to the final week of the millenium, the baby has grown up to be 20-year-old Christine York (Robin Tunney), a young woman who unknowingly has been hunted down for her whole life, and who has the ability to see things that aren't really there--or, at least, things that seem to only be in her imagination. Meanwhile, on the other side of the city, a wavery entity makes its way into a ritzy restaurant, travels into the bathroom, and enters the body of an unidentified businessman (Gabriel Byrne). Of course, we know out of common sense that it is the spirit of Satan himself, come to conceive of a child with Christine. Enter Jericho and his partner Chicago (Kevin Pollak), who unwittingly get involved in the satanic plot after investigating a mysterious gunman in the hospital, who turned out to be a priest.
Coming to theaters after the similarly religious-themed "Stigmata," "End of Days" is a better film, overall, simply because it introduces two protagonists (Jericho and Christine) that are at least likable enough to root for, unlike the central character in the former picture (played by Patricia Arquette), who was a slutty dimwit. Since "End of Days" is supposed to be nothing more than an entertaining popcorn movie (which it somewhat succeeds at), I can forgive most of its far-fetched nature, but some of it is such blatant rubbish that you can't help but snicker. A virtuous priest (Rod Steiger, in his first role that calls for him to actually act in years), for example, discusses how the number of the Devil, 666, actually means 999 if turned around. Add a "1" in front of it and you get 1999. If this is supposed to be anything but laughable, religious hogwash, then my first name is Merv.
New Year's Eve in 1999 is such an obviously provocative setting for a film that it is an unfortunate shame director Peter Hyams (1997's "The Relic") chooses to not put it to any notable use. With an alleged budget of $100-million, no one can tell me the filmmakers didn't have enough money to really throw caution to the wind and make an action-thriller that is something truly special and one-of-a-kind. As is, the only impressive visual effects are the effective ripples in the air that signify the Dark Side, and the demonic face of Satan that appears in a wave of fire in the otherwise cheesy climax.
As proven in "The Relic," Hyams may not be a master of building and developing characters, but he sure does know how to set up an action sequence, with no more valid example than the one edge-of-your-seat setpiece in the second half, which takes place on the subway. Nicely built-up and even suspenseful (one moment--the only in the whole movie--really startled me), the scene plays itself out to a stirring conclusion.
Gabriel Byrne, seemingly borrowing some of Al Pacino's mannerisms from the much-better 1997 horror film, "Devil's Advocate," is exceptionally menacing and appropriately cast as the ultimate villain. Byrne, who coincidentally portrayed a priest in "Stigmata," is, like in that film, the highlight of the cast. No matter what the role, Byrne takes himself, grabs the character tightly, and seems to make it his own, as if it was written for no one else.
"End of Days" isn't a bad movie by any means; it's just a reasonably silly one that, in one form or the other, has been overdone to death. There are no true surprises in the course of the whole film (aside from the aforementioned unconvincing and cornball twist at the end), nor does it even attempt to want to make any sense. After a sizable hiatus, Schwarzenegger is back in top form, but I think it's about time for this "End of Days" to signal the end of a well-worn, tiresome subgenre.
©1999 by Dustin Putman