End of Days

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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End of Days  (1999, dir: Peter Hyams; cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunney, Kevin Pollak, CCH Pounder, Udo Kier)

 

 

 

Not so much a horror film as an action thriller with horror icons, End of Days is yet another Lethal Weapon/Die Hard variation. A buddy cop movie with the ultimate villain: Satan himself.

If that's not high-concept enough, here's another twist: the buddy cops (actually, buddy bodyguards) are assigned to protect a prominent Wall Street yuppie from assassins. But unbeknownst to them, their charge is Satan in human form, and the assassins are a hit team from the Catholic Church. So the bodyguard heroes are inadvertently defending Satan against holy assassins.

As an actioner, End of Days is paint-by-numbers excellent. Nothing extraordinary, but replete with Hollywood's usual first-rate production values, inventive stunts, extravagant explosions, and breathless high-speed chases. Thrilling while it lasts, forgettable when it's over.

The film does flirt with some appropriate supernatural horror themes. Arnold Schwarzenegger is Jericho Cane (two Biblical names in one, neither clearly symbolic of anything; nor any reason for the spelling). Cane was once a good cop. Then he testified against the mob, and the mob killed his wife and daughter. Cane did his duty, playing by the rules. But where was the NYPD for Cane's family? Where was God?

Unable to bear the guilt, Cane quit the NYPD and went private. He's lost his Faith, in both the system and in God. When we first see him, he's contemplating suicide.

Gabriel Byrne (a priest in Stigmata, also 1999) is Satan, made flesh to impregnate the unwilling Christine York (Robin Tunney, The Craft). This must occur the hour before the Millennium, AD 2000, because ... well, just because. Naturally, York will then give birth to the Antichrist.

(One film critic pointlessly sneered that Satan should know the Millennium wasn't until 2001. I'm sure he did. I'm sure the ENTIRE PLANET knew the Millennium wasn't until 2001, seeing as how EVERYONE was informing EVERYONE else of that irrelevant factoid throughout the latter half of 1999).

But although End of Days features horror icons and themes, its story is structured as an actioner. When Cane realizes his employer is Satan, he turns his security skills to abducting and protecting York. Still lacking faith (despite witnessing Satan's powers), Cane rejects assistance from the Catholic church, preferring to battle Satan with testosterone-charged gunplay.

Yet as one may expect, the Prince of Darkness is indestructible, even more so than the metallic terminator in T2: Judgment Day. No matter how often Cane shoots, burns, and bloodies Satan, he'll be back. It's lowbrow, comic book entertainment. No cerebral horror. Nothing atmospheric or profound or chilling.

 

 

See Satan punch a minion so hard, his fist exits the back of the man's skull! See Satan hurtled down a subway car, knocking out poles like bowling pins! See the subway car crash and collapse, the heroes racing down the car as it folds up accordion-like behind them! See Arnold dangling from a helicopter as it speeds after an elderly priest/assassin, the priest plummeting several stories, crashing through a glass awning, then arising and racing down the street with Arnold in hot pursuit!

In both T2 and End of Days, Arnold protects a naif from an indestructible, relentless killer. Imagine T2's terminator having a supernatural, rather than a scientific, rationale, and you'll get a flavor for End of Days.

Apart from his name, there's some religious symbolism when Satan crucifies Cane. Here, Satan commits the silly mistake of many supervillains: allowing the hero to live so he may suffer a slow death, hear the villain's diabolical plans, and fully realize his defeat at the hands of the brilliant villain. Of course, this allows Arnold a chance to escape...

End of Days resembles director Peter Hyams's previous horror film, The Relic (1997). Fast-paced action, much gore, little atmosphere, style, or darkness. Still, Hyams's characters have grown. Arnold is a better actor than he's usually given credit for. Cane is a standard buddy cop cliché, almost to the point of parody, yet Arnold infuses Cane with depth and sympathy.

However, the stand-out performance comes from Gabriel Byrne. His role is written as pure evil, a Satan without doubts, ambiguity, or sympathy. Yet Byrne's Satan projects nuances, while always maintaining an evil core. His Satan is one-dimensional, yet deep. That sounds contradictory, but it isn't. His Satan's evil is remorseless, undeviating, and unhesitating. Pure evil. But an evil coated with superficial, yet brilliant, veneers.

Suitably dressed in hip yuppie black, Byrne's Satan exhibits casual cruelty to his loyal acolytes, a simmering vindictiveness, and a sense of frustrated entitlement over losing Heaven. Sometimes cool, even playful, then lashing out with lethal savagery. His warmth and sympathy are almost convincing as he tempts Cane with the return of his family. Satan's arguments are reasonable, his mannerisms gentle. Yet always, however vaguely, we perceive the evil and deceit beneath whatever veneer he wears.

 

 

A minor caveat. As in many films, the Catholic Church turns out to harbor a secret Order. In this case, a renegade faction of priests trained over the centuries to identify and halt the coming Antichrist. Either by killing Satan's mortal form -- or by killing the innocent mother-to-be of the Antichrist (York). Naturally, Arnold pulverizes these priests in his attempts to save York.

Now, I realize the Catholic Church has a near-monopoly on Antichrist films. But I doubt all religions would have had their clergy brutalized with such flippant glee. I'm not saying don't portray evil priests. I just wish the nasty cinematic portrayals could be spread a little more evenly across all faiths.

It's difficult to judge End of Days because: What standards does one apply? Do we measure it against actioners or horror? It's a first-rate action film. But as horror, it lacks the innovative style or thought-provoking profundity of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, or Lost Souls. Gabriel Byrne is a noteworthy Satan. Arnold is a fine action hero. His buddy, Kevin Pollak, is decent but forgettable. Likewise, Robin Tunney. Udo Kier has a briefly interesting role as a Satanic minion.

As a horror film, End of Days is adequate, but no more. Its chief pleasures derive from its stunts and pyrotechnics.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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