Arnold Schwarzenegger has had two incredibly successful periods in his film career. The first of these is the most obvious. From roughly 1982 to 1994, Arnie established himself as one of the biggest movie-stars in the world, starring in a slew of actioners that brilliantly capitalized on his larger than life personality, charisma and biceps. This was the period that endeared Schwarzenegger to millions: the “Hasta la vista, baby” days, the salad days, which elevated him as a unique breed of action star.
The second and less obvious period is Arnold’s recent output. Starting in 2013 with The Last Stand, Arnold released a series of films that were more meditative than anything that had come before. That’s not to say that these titles are “da party poopahs” of his filmography – far from it. Many are quite fun to watch, particularly The Last Stand. Yet its undeniable that the late-stage overture of Arnold’s career has been marked by an enhanced sense of gravity, seen in everything from Ayer’s gritty Sabotage to Taylor’s absurd Terminator Genisys.
1999’s End of Days sits awkwardly in the middle of the continuum, in that, it neither successfully exploits Arnold’s magnetic star power and cartoonish frame (the way his 1982 – 1995 period did) or rigorously investigates (and deconstructs) those same beefy attributes (like his 2013 – present era).
In the film, Arnold plays the awesomely-named Jericho Cane, a flinty, burned-out and boozed-up former cop who must protect a young woman (Robin Tunney) when Satan (Gabriel Byrne) targets her to bear his hellspawn and help usher in the end times. Cane is a miserable son-of-a-bitch, depressed due to the loss of his wife and child, who passed away years before the events of the film. Cane is also a fallen Christian, having renounced his faith following the death of his family. End of Days establishes his character’s emotional state with an earth-shattering lack of subtlety, introducing Caine by showing him sitting in his decrepit, darkened apartment, gun clamped in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other.
End of Days sets this metaphysical tale in the days leading up to New Year’s Eve, 1999, parsing Y2K anxiety to fuel its story’s sense of apocalyptic dread. Director Peter Hyams fills his shots with snatches of gloomy radio commentary, degraded cityscapes and urban white noise. Doing double duty as cinematographer, Hyams succeeds in creating feelings of claustrophobia and malaise, reducing – in several shots – the expansive nature of New York City into a sea of careening cars and grey monoliths. He also is able to populate this dreary metropolis with visually-striking denizens, particularly Victor Varnado’s malevolent (and clearly Renfield-inspired) Albino.
None of this, however, is of particular note. For the most part, the aesthetics of End of Days simply trigger memories of better films. One that immediately sprung to my small mind was the 1990 horror movie Jacob’s Ladder, which turned early-90s New York into a true vision of the apocalypse. The terrifying and grimy set design, brilliant makeup and atmospheric photography of that earlier film, not to mention its careful interweaving of themes such as PTSD, is a high bar that End of Days doesn’t so much clear as it burrows under.
The uninspired, workman-like nature of End of Days does not end with its visuals. On a thematic level, the film attempts to swing for the fences, broaching meaningful themes such as the nature of faith. Adding to this is the film’s specific setting and time period: the secular, fallen world of Manhattan at the end of the millennium. It is through Schwarzenegger’s Jericho that End of Days investigates this tension, producing little in the way of complexity. Both Hyams’ direction and Andrew W. Marlowe’s script completely fumble the potential offered by the film’s premise, like a second-string wide-receiver used to riding the pine pony. Essentially, the filmmaker’s distill the story down into a moralistic tale, suggesting that salvation can only come from obtaining belief in the Almighty. We should all (apparently) stop aspiring to be eggheads, put away our science and technology and pick up a goddamn cross.
The film’s casting is also somewhat underwhelming. As the object of Satan’s desire, Robin Tunney is given little to do and is relegated largely to a prototypical “damsel in distress” role. On the other hand, as the big bad himself, Byrne is more effective, creating a poised yet hedonistic portrait of the Devil. Byrne was given the dubious honor of a Razzie nomination for his work in End of Days, but it isn’t really deserved. If Byrne’s work has a fault, it is that his performance is simply uninvolving, like listening to the safety presentation before an airline flight or watching a commercial for the latest gas guzzler. Simply put, this is no Viggo Mortensen in The Prophecy or Robert De Niro in Angel Heart.
As for the star, Schwarzenegger doesn’t break any new ground here; in fact, he seems to often be running on autopilot. It’s not that Arnold is necessarily bad in the role of Jericho; he just isn’t fully or robustly utilized. Arnold’s impact as a performer varies dramatically depending on the intuition of the filmmakers behind each project. He’s not the type of actor who can, on his own, elevate material beyond its inherent limitations.
At the same time, Arnold has often displayed more range than he is normally given credit for. He can be sweet and innocent (such as in Stay Hungry or Twins), cold and inhuman (The Terminator series) or burdened and mournful (Maggie and Sabotage). In End of Days, nothing sustained or substantial comes across, aside from listlessness. Arnold carries himself in action sequences well enough (although many of the film’s chases and punch-ups have a murky drabness); yet there is none of the dynamism that fuels the star’s best work – that is, aside from a hysterical line where Arnold’s Cane screams that Byrne’s Satan is a “choir boy” compared to him.
End of Days represents the weird, transitory period in Arnold’s career, where the star was attempting to redefine his on-screen persona while growing older. It’s a peculiar entry in his filmography, but not a successful one. There is a lot of potential on display, and the film strives admirably to evoke a specific time and place. The only problem is, it doesn’t really have much to say, and it doesn’t capitalize on the capabilities of its stars. This doesn’t make the film hellish, but it’s far, FAR from heavenly. Let’s split the difference and call it purgatorial.