End of Days is neither Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best nor his worst film. As a “scary movie” (what the trailer seems to imply) it quite nicely inhabits the middle of the road, with predictable shocks coming throughout the film that nevertheless remaining shocking. The special effects are really well done, so that suspension of disbelief (in the events as they transpire) is not difficult, and a bizarre plot is matched by a sense of self-deprecation on the part of all of the actors, making the movie itself sarcastic and fun.
The plot, on paper, is simple: the Devil himself returns to Earth every thousand years to choose a bride to bear the Antichrist, who will usher in the “End of Days” in which there are plagues, famines and other apocalyptic events. Lucifer arrives a few days before New Year’s Eve and takes over the body of a “wall-street scumbag” played by Gabriel Byrne. (Who would have guessed the Devil would choose an investment banker to personify pure evil?) He next hires an elite security firm to make sure he is protected for the next few days, which works well for about ten minutes until an ex-priest attempts to kill him. Who’s guarding the Devil with an assortment of weapons and body armor? Arnold, of course, playing Jericho Cane, a suicidal man who’s lost his wife and daughter in a bizarre Mob retaliation hit.
The movie then follows Arnold and comedic sidekick Chicago (ably played by Kevin Pollak) as they try to uncover why the priest, named Thomas Aquinas (a real sharp-shooter, that Thomas Aquinas guy) was shooting at their customer. Arnold tracks Aquinas to a subway line, where he tells Arnold to beware. After Arnold is told that Aquinas lacked a tongue, he becomes more involved in the case, eventually leading him to a church where Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) leads a group of priests in an effort to save the world.
All this time, Satan’s bride-to-be, Christine York, played by Robin Tunney, is running around town being accosted by various demonic messengers. Again, more good special effects, but sadly, low believability. Arnold manages to track her down through a display of pure genius, managing to transform the words “Christ in New York” carved into Aquinas’s back by the devil (who, apparently, thinks he’s invincible) into “Christine York.” The result is simple and Eraser-like: Arnold must protect Christine from the Devil, the Satanists (who are apparently all over New York City) and his own angst.
The Devil and Arnold then face off in a mano-a-mano dance of destruction. Arnold manages to neatly throw the devil off a building at one point, only to reveal to Chicago (who by this point has exchanged his soul in order to prevent dying a flaming death) his plans to meet Christine. The two join together back at Father Kovak’s church, where Kovak explains to Arnold the entire theory behind what is going on.
To this point, the movie has been taking itself fairly seriously. It’s a relief then to hear Arnold express disbelief in the Devil’s plan to produce a child in the four hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve, quipping that the Devil must rely on Eastern Standard Time. Kovak gives a suitably lame excuse that the Gregorian Calendar has been fashioned to the exact specifications of the Church, but the point has been made: the movie no longer considers itself above self-derision. It’s a subtle move, but it more than makes up for the later, over-the-top scene of Arnold crucified. It also covers up the fact that (in theory) the Devil also failed to achieve his world-domination a millennium ago, when high-powered rifles weren’t all the rage.
Next come radical papists, hell-bent on killing Christine (which, in retrospect, would have saved a whole bunch of people who get offed in the next few hours); the Devil’s reappearance at the church; Arnold’s crucifixion and subsequent freedom by Father Kovak. If this sounds complicated, it is, but the action’s good enough to gloss over the numerous unnecessary subplots. Arnold returns to his secret security lair, suits up Matrix-style with a small weapons cache, and goes looking for Christine.
Murder and mayhem ensue, in the true high point of the film. Arnold blasts his way through Satanists, kicks the Devil’s ass and rescues the girl. Of course, we are dealing with Lucifer, who eventually discards Gabriel Byrne’s body to simply get medieval on Arnold. Ending aside, the film’s final half-hour is easily its most entertaining part.
The moral lesson learned by Arnold (and the movie viewers) is also a positive one, rare for a man whose best works include Predator (lesson: cover yourself in heat-resistant mud and you might just make it!) and Terminator 2 (lesson: the future is ours to write, so don’t design any super-intelligent machines!). Arnold eventually must rely on faith, and not an oversupply of explosives, to attack the all-powerful Devil.
Viewers coming into the film with super-high expectations, fed by the recent trailer (which says among other items that it is the scariest move ever) will be let down slightly. The movie isn’t about pure horror, or a feel-good message, although it contains elements of both. It doesn’t have Eraser’s butt-kicking railguns, or Total Recall’s holographic watches, but it still is enjoyable to watch, merely from a pure action standpoint. And it reinforces the old adage that the first rule of dealing with the devil is, DON’T.