By Rob Blackwelder
By 10 minutes into "End of Days," this sorry Schwarzenegger-versus-Satan saga -- full of gratuitous gore-and-guns and contorted Christian mythology -- has already proved itself to be the most laughable entry yet in the recently fashionable, faith-based supernatural thriller genre.
The very first scene in "Days" is an unintentional riot as director Peter Hyams opens the film at the Vatican and manages, through exactly the wrong mix of menacing lighting and whispery Italian accents, to make the pontiff and his closest cardinals come across like Pope Don Corleone and bunch of mock-Scorsese mobsters.
It's 1979 and they've got their tunics in a twist because a comet is passing over the moon, signaling the birth of a girl who will become the object of Satan's lust on New Year's Eve 1999. If he manages to impregnate her, the armies of darkness will rule the world for 1,000 years, or something like that.
That's right, friends -- as if the arduous, demon-spawn plot wasn't silly enough, "End of Days" is also a Y2K thriller. But wait, there's more! Why is it a Y2K thriller? Because 666 upside-down is 999 -- as in 1999. No kidding. That's part of the plot.
Skip to December 28, 1999 and here's an investment banker played by Gabriel Byrne. He goes into a bathroom in a Manhattan restaurant and becomes possessed by a lurking, morphing Beelzebub. Why him? "End of Days" doesn't bother to explain. But we know he's been taken over by evil because when he walks out of the loo, he pulls a diner's left breast out of her dress, pinches it, kisses her like he's trying to taste what she had for lunch that day, then walks out looking as wickedly pleased with himself as Byrne can manage.
By the time the scruffy, suicidally depressed widower and high-tech security expert played by Arnold Schwarzenegger is introduced -- in a swilling depression hang-over scene where he contemplates putting a bullet in his head -- it was all I could do to keep from begging out loud that he go through with it. Anything to not have to watch the rest of this movie.
No luck. Arnie holsters the hand cannon and before long he's hanging from a helicopter over Midtown trying to snatch a sniper off a rooftop.
That sniper turns out to be a homeless priest sharpshooter (don't even ask) who was trying to take Byrne out. Arnie's curiosity gets the best of him, so he starts to investigate what the priest was up to. The trail leads to a 20-year-old orphan babe with a pixie hair-do (Robin Tunney, taking a nose-dive from her Best Actress win at the 1997 Venice Film Festival for "Niagara Niagara"), who he soon discovers is destined to be Satan's bride unless he can protect her.
Ridiculously elaborate fight scenes and budget-busting explosions ensue.
"End of Days" is a plague of shopworn action vignettes and action foibles (inexhaustible ammunition clips, et al.), unnecessarily grotesque and unsettling examples of Mr. Scratch's depravity (allusions to mother-daughter sex and kiddie rape), idiotic dialogue ("There are forces at work here you couldn't possibly understand!") and the unintentionally funny -- Arnie's partner, played by wise-cracking Kevin Pollak, is killed by the devil's flammable urine. I swear I'm not making this up!
The pee-explosion -- which Byrne perpetuates even though he's trying to stay inconspicuous so he can kidnap the girl from her home -- blows up about 12 cars on a swanky street of brownstones and not only do the cops never come, but not a single neighbor as much as looks out their window to see what might have caused a fireball on their front steps.
Hyams, who is responsible for so many bad movies that I can only list a few here -- "Capricorn One," "Outland," "Time Cop," "The Relic" -- is operating on such a amateurish level here that he even employs the hackneyed old scare tactic of having a cat leap out of a cabinet to get a cheap jump out of the audience. The preview crowd I saw the movie with started laughing.
Well, truth be told, they'd been laughing for a while by that point, and kept on laughing at everything from Schwarzenegger's exceedingly laborious acting (is it possible he's getting worse?) to the "Temple of Doom"-fashioned ritual finale in which Tunney nearly gets deflowered on a stone slab while dimly-lit, hooded minions chant like crack-addicted monks.
If Byrne's Satan incarnate hadn't passed up on at least a dozen easy opportunities to kill Schwarzenegger and others trying to protect the girl, if screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe ("Air Force One") hadn't invented his own scriptures every time he wrote himself into a corner and slapped absurdly Biblical names (Abel, Thomas Aquinas, Jericho) on half of the characters, if there was a single character in the movie that wasn't a central casting cliche, if it didn't end with Arnold tossing his gun aside and dropping on his knees to invoke the power of prayer -- "End of Days" might have been merely forgettable.
But it's such a pathetic, gimmick-driven attempt to crowbar an action element into a ride on the coattails of truly unsettling genre hallmarks like "Seven" and "The Devil's Advocate," that it fails even more miserably than "Stigmata," this year's other laughably bad, gritty, supernatural Biblical thriller starring Gabriel Byrne.
Easily one of the worst movies of 1999, "End of Days" is absolutely insufferable.
Run time: 121 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 24th November 1999
Box Office Worldwide: $209.3M
Distributed by: Universal Pictures
Production compaines: Universal Pictures Corporation, Beacon Communications
Rotten Tomatoes: 11%
Fresh: 11 Rotten: 88
IMDB: 5.7 / 10
Director: Peter Hyams
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger as Jericho Cane, Gabriel Byrne as Satan, Robin Tunney as Christine York, Udo Kier as Head Priest, Rod Steiger as Father Kovak, Kevin Pollak as Bobby Chicago, C. C. H. Pounder as Detective Margie Francis, Miriam Margolyes as Mabel
Also starring: Kevin Pollack
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