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Schwarzenegger tries a Bruce Willis in supernatural End of Days

End of Days
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gabriel Byrne, Robin Tunney, Kevin Pollack, Rod Steiger, and Udo Kier
Screenplay: Andrew W. Marlowe
Producers: Armyan Bernstein and Bill Borden
Director: Peter Hyams
MPAA Rating: R for intense violence and gore, a strong sex scene, nudity and language

Ah yes, another "end of the millenium" thriller, this one starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is, of course, Schwarzenegger's first film since his big-budget, overblown disaster Batman & Robin, and one can only thank God that he's gone back to doing what he knows best: shooting bad guys. But there's something new here... something I've never seen Schwarzenegger try before. He's actually acting! This isn't Oscar worthy material, and he doesn't give an Oscar worthy performance, but it's refreshing to see the buffed-up actor playing a character that has more depth than a piece of cardboard. I, for one, think that alone is worth the price of admission.

And on top of that, the movie's actually good. I must admit to being a fan of the supernatural, and even though I've seen him a thousand times before, watching Satan wreak havoc on cities is just too much fun, particularly when you have Gabriel Byrne in the role. End of Days steals virtually everything from other movies, and seems to come at a bad time (after so many horror films this year, people may just be tired of them). Not to worry, since this thriller actually thrills, with some of the most suspenseful scenes put to celluloid this year. Most Schwarzenegger movies aren't that suspenseful, since he's pitted against a lesser adversary. But put him up against Satan, and you have the fight of the millenium.

End of Days begins with the obligatory explanation of what will happen, just in case we might get lost later on. A priest of the Catholic church witnesses the "Eye of God," a comet arching over the moon to look like an eyebrow. In other words, a child will be born who will be the mother of Satan's child. The Pope advises him to locate the child and protect her. Amazingly, the priest manages to find the child that same night (within six hours, in New York City) and performs a sacred ritual to protect her from harm. Jump ahead 20 years to 1999. Christine York (Robin Tunney), the "chosen" child, is mourning the loss of her mother and coping with mysterious visions that can't be explained. She confides in her doctor who is part of a cult of Satanists out to bring forth the coming of Satan's child.

Satan himself comes in the form of a shimmering spirit form. He takes over the body of an investment banker (Byrne) at a restaurant and after a quick spit-swat with a woman, blows the place up. He enlists the aid of a security team to protect his human form from the assassin attacks from religious zealots. Among these security agents is Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger), an ex-cop who got in trouble with alcohol after his wife and daughter were murdered. He's blamed himself ever since, claiming that he should have been home.

Walking around in a brooding state has never been Schwarzenegger's strong element, and it is these scenes that seem the most absurd. Thankfully, they don't give him much time, as he chases bad guys and tries to make sense of all that he sees. After one chase, he discovers a picture of Christine, and sets out to locate her. Meanwhile, she's being tormented by visions of people turning into porcelain and shattering. As Satan draws near, her visions get worse, including one involving Satan himself making love to her. All of this must come down to a fight between Satan and Jericho, otherwise why have Schwarzenegger in the film? And it does, but not in the way expected. I'll just leave it at that.

Due to the film's religious overtones, a lot has been made of the Catholic church portrayed as a hypocritical organization. However, the people making these accusations obviously haven't seen the film, since the the film states again and again that the church is there to do God's will, and that the Satanists are not supported by it. Not to mention the film doesn't take this stuff seriously for one second. After Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) explains that Satan must bed the woman within the hour before midnight, Jericho asks, "Eastern Standard?" It's a sensible question, but it also proves the film has a sense of humor (it is actually Eastern Standard, as answered by the climax--amazing that the Gregorian monks could time it exactly with the dropping Big Apple in Times Square). The screenplay by Andrew Marlowe isn't perfect (the millenium ends in 2000, not 1999), yet it knows the genre, and Marlowe has a little fun with the religious aspect. After all, this is a fiction film.

Much of the success, however, can be credited to Peter Hyams, who directs the film with assuredness. The dark, sleek look of the city creates a good atmosphere for Satan to play around. The quiet scenes of Schwarzenegger are nice breathers, and they allow Schwarzenegger to add to his character. But Hyams is better at action, and he creates some of the most suspenseful action sequences I've seen in a while, including a scary chase on a subway. Nothing, though, eclipses the power between Jericho and Satan in a well-directed and well-acted scene midway through the film. Inside Jericho's apartment, Satan appears, ready to do anything to discover the location of Christine. It's a terrific scene, and only makes viewers wish there were more scenes between Satan and Jericho.

Schwarzenegger, frankly, hasn't been better. He creates a character we can sympathize for, and still manages to shoot and kill many. His performance here is vastly superior to his last outing as Mr. Freeze, and with it we the viewers get drawn in. Gabriel Byrne has the time of his life playing Satan, not overplaying but also not being deadly dull. Instead, Byrne finds the perfect note, and creates one of the best depictions of Satan ever. Robin Tunney is good as Christine, though she appears too old to be 20. There's a nice little hidden subplot involving the death of her parents, and her father-figure attachment to Jericho. And the film wouldn't be complete without an obligatory shot of her breasts. Kevin Pollack is funny, reuniting with Byrne from The Usual Suspects. His wisecracks tend to be annoying, but occasionally he hits one right on the head. Meanwhile, Rod Steiger is vastly underused as a good-hearted priest. Special note must go to Victor Varnado who creates a creepy character without saying much. He's not onscreen much, but he stands out when he is.

End of Days is rated R for intense violence and gore, a strong sex scene, nudity and language. Nobody goes to a Schwarzenegger expecting an Oscar-worthy film, and that's certainly the case here. But going in expecting a good time, I was certainly surprised. The film is full of "jump" moments that are very effective, and Hyams creates a sense of dread that permeates the film. If you want a film that will have you gripping your armrest (or perhaps the person next to you), this is a good choice. It's fun, fast, and violent. Now this is entertainment!

*** out of ****

Reviews by Boyd Petrie
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