With the dreaded Y2K arrival date just a month away, it's surprising that we haven't been deluged with Y2K-related, theatrically released movies. For those who've recently emerged from their caves or self- imposed news exile, Y2K refers to the year 2000 and in particular the possible computer problems that will occur when those friendly little devices think that the beginning of the new millennium is actually the dawn of the 20th century.
A good bet for the reason behind the dearth of such films is that they're instantly dated once January 1, 2000 rolls around and that's bad news for box office returns. To get around that problem, the people behind "End of Days" -- the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot ‘em up flick -- have replaced millennium-based computer glitches with the Devil wanting to take over the world, or to keep with the acronyms, the Y2D (Year to Die) problem.
In essence, instead of your mortgage suddenly being reported as seventy years overdue, you need to worry about the Devil taking a bride before midnight, New Year's Eve, siring a child and thus causing the end of civilization as we know it. While that might sound like a religious supernatural thriller, it's more of just another action film with some religious and supernatural elements thrown in for good measure.
Of course if you're going to have the Devil in one corner of the ring, who better to be on the other side, ready to battle him, than Arnold Schwarzenegger? Having already gone toe to toe with numerous human villains, an alien predator and a liquid metal assassin from the future, this would seem to be the ultimate in cinematic clashes.
Unfortunately, it's also something of a dramatic letdown. Sure, there are the big action scenes, gun battles and a big special effects extravaganza to close the show, but upon watching this film you might get the impression that you've seen something vaguely familiar before. Okay, so Arnold's action flicks aren't that dissimilar, but if you remember back to 1991, he played a character who tried to save a woman and her son from a sleek, but determined individual who, it turned out, couldn't be stopped by conventional firepower.
That film, of course, was "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and Arnold's character spent most of it wounding the attacker in ways that would normally be considered lethal to most ordinary villains. Sure, Schwarzenegger played a robot sent from the future to prevent another robot of sorts from killing the mother and son and thus changing the future of the world, but the basic plot similarities between the two are striking and not particularly beneficial to this film's novelty factor.
To make matters worse, director/cinematographer Peter Hyams ("The Relic," "2010") is no James Cameron, and while he's filled with the film with the requisite action and fight scenes, they surprisingly don't have the necessary oomph for a film like this to make them stand out and really invigorate the audience. Instead, moviegoers are apt to watch the film in moderate interest, but never get quite caught up in like they did with "T2."
One of the problems is in figuring out how to play Schwarzenegger's chief adversary, the Devil. Should he be huge and monstrous, and thus more visually menacing, or of the smaller, but still threatening variety? Many people have played the character over the years -- Al Pacino being the most recent and notable one in "Devil's Advocate" -- and now Gabriel Byrne ("Stigmata," "The Usual Suspects") gets his shot. Obviously not a physically intimidating actor, Byrne does a decent job playing more along the lines of Pacino's confident, ever persuasive and smooth-talking Satan than a huge, lumbering brute.
As the hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger ("Eraser," the "Terminator" films) tries to instill a certain vulnerability to his otherwise stalwart character, but the results are a mixed bag. Since he repeatedly takes a licking and keeps on ticking, as in most of his films, such vulnerabilities are only so believable.
In addition, the whole notion of him being suicidal and an alcoholic is certainly not original for the distraught cop plot (see Mel Gibson in the original "Lethal Weapon" for a similar, but better executed example) and Arnie's attempts at emotion-laden "acting" aren't always as credible as one might like.
In the supporting roles, Kevin Pollak ("House Arrest," the "Grumpy Old Men" films) returns as the sidekick character and provides most of the film's comic relief, while Rod Steiger ("Crazy in Alabama," "On the Waterfront") isn't particularly notable as a local priest who tries to impress everyone with the seriousness of the situation.
As the woman in waiting, so to speak, Robin Tunney ("The Craft," "Niagra, Niagra") is okay, but embodies a poorly developed character whose main purpose is to run around with a wide-eyed look of terror on her face. With a more fleshed out role, she may have been able to add some more depth to her performance and the film overall, but that's just not there.
What is there is plenty of action, special effects, stunts and some funny one-liners that should collectively please Schwarzenegger's die-hard fans. Even so, Hyams and screenwriter Andrew W. Marlowe ("Air Force One") don't really create an overall, compelling picture.
Despite the religious implications and supernatural material, the film is neither moving nor particularly scary, part of which lies in the fact that we never really imagine what the "end of days" implies. In "T2" we got to see the impending nuclear holocaust and that gave us and the characters some motivation to get behind the effort. Here, the catastrophic potential is far more nebulous and thus not as effective.
Other problems are present as well. Although Schwarzenegger's character makes an appropriate joke about whether the "impregnate by midnight" clause refers to Eastern time, the question is never answered. In addition, while the Devil may have ultimate powers of persuasion, wouldn't you think he'd pick someone more handsome than Gabriel Byrne (no offense intended) if his goal is to get the chosen woman into bed.
After all, Robert Redford's good looks (okay, plus a million dollars) persuaded Demi Moore to forgo Woody Harrelson in "Indecent Proposal," and while the Sundance Kid may be getting a bit long in the tooth for such a role, there are plenty of other young, virile performers available.
Despite him being a former cop, Arnold's character, along with his partner, are given a lot of leeway by the local detectives to snoop around crime scenes, while moments of mobs chasing after him and the young woman reek of an unintentional parody of similar scenes in "Frankenstein" where the square-jawed protagonist there is also hunted down. Finally, an important "twist" that occurs late in the film isn't that surprising or unexpected since most everyone in the audience will have long been wondering why it didn't happen much sooner.
Although the film has it moments and is relatively easy enough to sit through, particularly if you enjoy Arnold's movies, the fact that it's not much more than a retreading of the basic, underlying plot of "T2" and never quite gets the goose bumps going in either a scary or adrenaline-related fashion, means that the film never really escapes mediocrity. As such, "End of Days" rates as a middle-of-the-road, 5 out of 10.