End of Days (1999)

D: Peter Hyams
S: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne

Surprisingly effective millennial horror which manages to keep the on-screen persona of Arnold Schwarzenegger subdued by a dark urban setting and an unusually low-key characterisation. This was a risky gambit both for the star and director Peter Hyams (Outland, 2010), but it seems to have paid off. Schwarzenegger portrays a borderline burn-out ex-cop now in the private security business (vague echoes of Predator perhaps?) who finds himself entwined in a supernatural conspiracy to bring about Armageddon when Satan rises to earth and possesses the body of Gabriel Byrne. He's in search of his predestined bride Robin Tunney, who will give birth to the anti-christ and trigger the end of days. Though the plot is wracked with implausibilities, even for the genre, Hyams manages to contain it with the aid of suitably dark images of the decaying late twentieth century urban landscape and an overall grimness (and surprising seriousness) of tone which doesn't encourage laughter. There are no winks to the camera here (at least not from Schwarzenegger), and no knowing post-modern self-denegration (Scream 2, Deconstructing Harry). Hyams and Schwarzenegger play it more or less straight all the way through (unlike Taylor Hackford's Devil's Advocate, for example), and it actually holds together if you are prepared to let it.

As is usual in this type of film, the scenery munching is largely left to the actor playing the devil. Gabriel Byrne follows Al Pacino in Devil's Advocate, but comes in a long line of actors in this role who exude plenty of menace and even some wry charm. Byrne has some nice moments of casual lechery and seduction, but for the most part Hyams makes use of his dark-browed stare and menacing presence, before eventually surrendering the characterisation to CGI effects which somehow seem less of a match for Arnie than Byrne himself. For his part, Schwarzenegger delivers an actual performance as the oddly named Jericho Cane, and though many will scoff at the suggestion, he's really very effective and generally believable. There are certainly less of the traditional superhero antics audiences have come to associate with the actor, and he frequently seems in genuine danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of darkness against which he is ranged. There may be some conscious reference to Blade Runner in the character's costume and general demeanour. The film certainly shares some of that film's quasi-expressionistic despair for both society and the individual, and threatens to blur the lines between heroes and villains at least in its portrayal of the underground organisation of the respective forces of good and evil (both of whom have hidden networks of followers who play a crucial role in the plot). Yet it does ultimately boil down to a showdown between good and evil which literally makes Arnold Schwarzenegger into the messiah (he is even crucified in one scene), and this might give pause for thought on closer inspection and is certainly less than subtle about its resolution.

There's also a very interesting supporting cast, including Kevin Pollack, Udo Kier, CCH Pounder, Rod Steiger, and Miriam Margoyles. On the whole, the star's persona is not allowed to undermine the contributions of secondary characters, and given Hyams' penchant for allowing the environment to reflect as much as the dialogue (he is a cinematographer, after all), the film has a pleasingly organic feel. Though it is never actually frightening, it is atmospheric. Scenes of the Satanist underground are notably grubbier and less gothic than they often appear, which makes them more realistic, and the film generally maintains a gloomy aspect which makes it more Se7en than Batman and Robin.

The film is no masterpiece. The story does not hold up to close analysis and it does eventually end up with too much literal closure and catharsis to be genuinely disturbing or thought-provoking. If it fails to engage you within a few minutes, it will probably make you increasingly hostile, and if you can't accept Schwarzenegger in the central role, then there's no point in staying. The success of the film is, in this sense, too dependent on extraneous factors, and though it makes an interesting addition to the canon of late twentieth century religious fantasy (Dogma, Stigmata, etc.), it's hardly its apotheosis. Still, there is plenty here to enjoy if it gets you in the right frame of mind, and it is quite an unexpected turnabout from its star, who seemed to have become so larger than life that there was nowhere else for him to go.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.