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by: Scott Renshaw

For about ten seconds, there is the faint hope that End of Days is clued in to its own absurdity. Our hero, Jericho Cane (Arnold Schwarzenegger), finds himself in the basement of a New York City Catholic church, protecting a woman named Christine York (Robin Tunney) and learning a lesson in the apocalypse from a priest (Rod Steiger). It seems that the Evil One has taken human form (Gabriel Byrne), and plans to bring about the end of days by impregnating Christine with his child. In order for the anti-Christ incarnation to "take," according to the priest, said conception must occur between 11 p.m. and midnight on December 31, 1999. Incredulously, Jericho asks the priest, "Is that Eastern Time?"

It's a nice line, and it couldn't come at a more crucial time. For over an hour, End of Days fairly drowns in preposterousness. It's the kind of film where a suspect is found carrying a matchbook that leads Jericho directly to important clues, and where the same suspect also has something Jericho cleverly intuits is Christine's name carved into his stomach. It's the kind of film where Jericho locates Christine by searching though New York City driver's license records, apparently finding only one Christine York in a city of 10 million people. It's the kind of film where Jericho grabs a single book off a shelf, and miraculously finds a clue to a mysterious pendant he has obtained. And it's the kind of film where, while being pursued by Satan himself, Christine stops to grab her coat on the way out the door. After sixty minutes of painful head smacking, I was ready for that glimmer of hope. Maybe, just maybe, it was time to start having some fun with the end of the world as we know it.

This, however, is a supernatural thriller that takes itself far too seriously. Much of that seriousness revolves around Schwarzenegger, who plays an ex-cop-turned-private security professional, wallowing in alcoholism and self-pity after the death of his wife and daughter (for which he had some indirect responsibility). One assumes this is meant to be a chance for Schwarzenegger to stretch his serious actor muscles in a plot line ready-made for a little redemption (Christine owns a music box just like his daughter had, in case the surrogate daughter angle was too obscure for you). But Arnold plays tormented as just plain mad, and the moment when he reaches divine understanding of how he can defeat the Dark Angel is brutally, unintentionally hysterical. Turning End of Days into a character piece is a mistake; letting Schwarzenegger play that character is flat-out foolish.

It probably seemed like a good idea at the time, since there's also plenty of gun-firin', helicopter-danglin', subway car-explodin' action. Some of it is even pretty lively, including the early chase sequence in which a suspended Schwarzenegger pursues a sniper over a rooftop. Peter Hyams is a true hack-tion director, and he usually knows how to keep a film moving along with fireballs a-plenty and several kajillion rounds of ammunition fired off. There's also quite a bit of unpleasant brutality in the form of snapped necks, severed jugular veins and punched-out vital organs. It's not that you expect Satan to be a nice guy -- indeed, Gabriel Byrne plays him effectively as a smug libertine with a very short temper -- but that it's hard to settle in and enjoy End of Days as an adventure thriller when so much is treated as grim and portentous.

And that's really the fatal flaw of End of Days: it never decides on an appropriate tone. If we're expected simply to enjoy the carnage, it's foolish to make the hero a lost soul. If we're expected to take the dark scenario seriously, the ridiculous plot contrivances make that impossible. If we're expected to be genuinely scared, the comic relief is a cheat (though sidekick Kevin Pollak gets one killer line after the ubiquitous cat-jumping-out-of-nowhere). End of Days


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