Not having yet managed to set off on “The Crusades,” Arnold Schwarzenegger instead does his millennial bit for Christendom in “End of Days,” a frightfest in which the screen’s greatest strongman arm-wrestles Satan over the destiny of the next thousand years. Star’s first outing since “Batman and Robin” more than two years ago finds him in fine form in a middling vehicle that veers repeatedly from the reasonably exciting to the risibly over-the-top. Nonetheless, Universal release serves up more than enough in the way of dramatic confrontations and eventful action to assure muscular B.O. both domestically and abroad.
Sporting a trim beard and seemingly a shade leaner than in his pumped-up prime, Schwarzenegger looks great even though he’s playing an alcoholic ex-cop, Jericho Cane, who, in his first scene, is about to commit suicide out of despair over the murder of his wife and daughter. Rescued by his security job partner Chicago (Kevin Pollak), Jericho shortly finds himself thrust into the vortex of a long-prophecized religious battle in which Satan will try to wrest control of the universe from God.
A twin-tracked 1979 prologue sets up the central dynamic. Just as a baby girl born in New York City is whisked away from her mother to be baptized with fresh snake’s blood, the Pope, upon being advised of the ominous birth, informs Vatican officials that the girl is to be protected from evil, not killed, as some would prefer.
On Dec. 28, 1999, with four days to go before Y2K pandemonium hits, earthquakes and subterranean fires in Manhattan set the stage for Satan’s dazzling entrance: The Man (Gabriel Byrne), having been overtaken by a fleetingly visible floating force, strides into a restaurant and boldly kisses another man’s woman at a table, setting her swooning, before nonchalantly blowing the place to smithereens. This is clearly a Man accustomed to getting his own way.
As it happens, Jericho has been hired to protect The Man and the next day prevents a sniper from killing his employer, triggering the first of several action set pieces director Peter Hyams has pulled off with professional skill if not with breathtaking ingenuity. The shooter, after having been chased from downtown rooftops to a subway tunnel, turns out to be a bedraggled old-timer with the name Thomas Aquinas, a would-be visionary who prattles on about the advent of a thousand years.
Meanwhile, the baby from the prologue has grown into 20-year-old Christine York (Robin Tunney), and she’s having visions of her own, frightening ones about her inability to resist a man she’s warned is coming for her. These apparitions give Hyams plenty of opportunities for shock cuts to violent and/or scary images, which he indulges happily, just as he does The Man’s whimsical brutalities; with just a couple of days left to amuse himself before his more serious work begins, Satan has fun crucifying the ailing Aquinas on his hospital room ceiling, just as he tortures Jericho with a vision of himself having morphing sex with his dead wife and daughter.
Rather too conveniently, Jericho figures out that it’s Christine he’s meant to protect, and, after a nifty fight between Jericho and Christine’s protective and superhumanly strong stepmother (Miriam Margolyes), who turns out to be one of Satan’s many secret minions, the fleeing twosome track down Aquinas’ friend, Father Kovak (Rod Steiger), who explains it all: Christine, who bears Satan’s mark, is meant to give birth to the anti-Christ and, for this to happen, Satan must impregnate her in the hour before the arrival of the new millennium.
Rather than accept the church’s questionable sanctuary, Jericho and Christine head out into the city, where they play an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with The Man up to the final minutes of 1999. To save Christine, Jericho must penetrate an enormous underground industrial cavern where Satan intends to plant his demon seed before an enthusiastic audience of admirers.
Fittingly, it all ends in a church with a scene of vast iconographic significance in the Schwarzenegger canon: Faced with the imminence of the Final Battle, Jericho tosses aside his huge gun, looks skyward and says, “Please, God, give me strength.” Suffice it to say that he needs it.
Script by Andrew W. Marlowe (“Air Force One”) works both sides of the street in generating occasions for big-scaled action and religion-laced horror, while Hyams seems intent on making the picture as relentlessly unnerving as possible. At times, his dedicated manufacture of distress is relatively successful, especially in the creation of a mood of chaos and dread in the prelude to New Year’s Day 2000; at others, it’s all just too much, especially in some of the more overheated invocations of religious motifs and when The Man lets Jericho off the hook once or twice too often.
Violence quotient is strong but not too high, while special effects are generally groovy, notably an exhilarating subway chase and crash, and the church finale in which all manner of inanimate objects shake, rattle and roll. Tech contributions to the generally dark-looking picture are solid across the board, with L.A. convincingly doubling for New York in all but the most obvious location-establishing scenes.
It’s good to see Schwarzenegger doing his thing again after what, for him, was a long sabbatical; in addition to the physical adjustments, he’s added a pleasing vulnerable side to his characterization here that bodes well for further alterations to his heroic stature. The sassy Pollak, despite being sidelined for a lengthy stretch, proves a good sidekick for the big man, while Byrne takes barely surpressed glee in his role as the ultimate villain. Tunney is OK as the woman faced with a date she’d very much like to get out of.