on 7 July 2000
Even the most jaded viewer of action films, tired of every new entry in the genre attempting to top the last, must have given a wry smile when they heard about this one. The producers and writer could surely have needed only a three line pitch for the studios - "Arnie versus Satan" - and waited for the money to fall at their feet. In the scale of things, this kicks the legendary bout between Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris (in the Colosseum, too!) in Game of Death into submission. This is it. The big one.
Yet curiously, for the most part, "End of Days" is barely an action film at all. Rather than the spectre of classic Arnie films that have blighted many of his recent lacklustre efforts, the film consciously brings to mind the classic satanic horror films of the 1970s, and most of all Alex de Inglasias's more recent superlative horror comedy, "Day of the Beast". This critically-lauded yet sadly relatively obscure gem featured a priest who deciphered exactly when Satan would return to Earth, yet crucially, failed to find out where, forcing him to embark on a diabolical rampage in the hope of attracting him.
In this film, Arnie is a bodyguard who has to protect a young unknowingly pre-destined to bear the devil's child. A gimmicky, rushed Millennium setting aside, the premise gives the film-makers a lot to work with. The opening, in which a priest tells the Pope of his discovery, reminds one of "The Exorcist", delivered with a fragile mood and subtlety, rather than bludgeoning the audience with a heavy-handed score or adding wam-bam action scenes. Before cutting to the present day, it leads to a highly uncomfortable scene in which Satan's future target is chosen. It involves a baby and a knife. And a snake. And blood. And its ominous as hell.
But this is just the first of a series of well-judged well-placed shocks throughout a mostly coherent narrative as Arnie is brought inextricably towards his destiny - from a scarily-faced vagrant messenger who first warns the girl of Satan's plan, to a ceiling crucifixion, and most bizarrely and terrifyingly of all, the opportunity to see Arnie get beaten up by, of all people, Miriam Margolyes.
The film largely works because it asks Arnie to leave his trademark quips and gung-ho spirit at check-in. Any that remains is either ridiculed or put down to the last refuge of the misguided alcoholic that he plays. As contrived as the alcoholic sub-plot might be, its a neat device to put the pathos and the fallibility into a character that muddies the waters in an already convulted story. Pairing him off with the more relaxed, naturally comic actor Kevin Pollack was an inspired idea. Putting them both against Gabriel Byrne's devil incarnate, oozing charm and menace in equal doses, was even better. (Although employing over-symbolised names for the leads - Arnie is Jericho, Satan's target is, i kid you not, Christine W York - was a bit much.)
In "Day of the Beast", a highly promising set up is marred only by a faintly silly last few minutes and alas, in the tradition of modern Hollywood blockbusters, the same is true here. For once, here is an Arnie film with more than a grain of an idea, a gripping and at times disturbing satanic thriller. The divided interests among church groups and Satan sympathisers that the mother of the devil's child would almost certainly engender creates a clever scenario, yet sadly this is squandered for the obligatory chase scenes. It is as if the studio, or ,maybe the writers, lacked the faith to see the set-up through, or perhaps feared they had overerestimated Arnie's audience. Finally falling between the two stools of clever thriller and above-average action film, the impact of a well set-up, surprisingly good thriller is diluted. If you get used to the idea early enough that its not going to know what to do with itself later on, however, there is much imagination at work here, and much to enjoy.