With premillennial anxiety swirling around us, it's nice to know that some things in life are constant. In the future as before, silly, bloated blockbusters will continue to be cobbled together from the remnants of actual films.
The proof is "End of Days," a dose of apocalyptic hooey that's mostly "Rosemary's Baby" with heavy artillery, albeit with a dash of David Fincher grisliness mixed in to sweeten its satanic themes -- less 666 than "Seven Seven Seven."
Hollywood force of nature Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Jericho Cane, a New York City security guard who -- despite his Biblically blatant moniker -- is a highly unlikely choice to join God's armies in the war against Old Scratch. An alcoholic ex-cop who's tormented by the memories of his murdered wife and child, Cane starts each morning by putting a gun to his own head, wondering if another day of loneliness is really worth it.
The antihero gambit is a kindergarten cop from Mel Gibson's Riggs in "Lethal Weapon," but it's pretty difficult to take the perpetually pumped-up Arnold seriously as a nihilist. If Cane's life has lost all meaning, why is he apparently spending so much time at the gym? To leave a good-looking corpse?
Maybe he doesn't get a good enough workout at his day job. Cane's new gig is with Striker Security, the kind of only-in-the-movies firm that retains its own helicopter for routine protection runs, yet doesn't require its dissipated employees to shave. Crane's partner is Chicago (Kevin Pollak), the archetypal funny sidekick. Chicago is more happy-go-lucky than his brooding pal. He doesn't shave, either.
Their work becomes more interesting when Striker is contracted to guard a mysterious, nameless Wall Street type (played by Gabriel Byrne). A seemingly insane priest attempts to assassinate the power broker, and the intended victim then promptly vanishes from the crime scene. Crane and Chicago are mystified, but they're lacking one vital piece of information: The human target is actually the Devil, come to Earth in human form to claim a bride on New Year's Eve, 1999 ... and thus bring about the end of the world.
Let's stop right here and dwell for a moment on the concept of a Mephistopheles who only rises to the surface every 1,000 years (as the script tells us), yet can't find a better vessel than Gabriel Byrne -- an art-house presence so slight he often seems in danger of blowing off the screen -- in which to reside. Maybe Max Von Sydow was already booked for New Year's.
The devil's prey is Christine York (Robin Tunney), an innocent foster child who has unknowingly been raised from birth to someday become the bride of evil. (Talk about your perils of home schooling.) Getting to the girl before Satan, Crane makes it his mission to keep her from harm. And perhaps, the script hints -- OK, shouts -- he'll redeem his soul in the process.
For a supposedly mainstream piece of entertainment, there's plenty of nasty, troubling business going on here. The free association of sex, violence and religious iconography would make even Godard blush, and it's tough to know what to think of the renegade, knife-wielding clergymen who shuffle through the movie, intent on murdering Christine (and anyone else who gets in their way) as a method of preventing the coming apocalypse. Why isn't the Catholic church protesting this film? Because it's tied up right now with "Dogma," that's why.
The moments of genuine filmcraft are satisfying but few. Crane's pursuit of the first holy assassin culminates in a vertigo-inducing bit of hand-to-hand combat that's performed while the two men hang in midair from the aforementioned 'copter. Another scene sees Christine accosted on the subway by a grinning demon whose brittle body breaks into porcelainlike pieces as soon as she touches him.
More typical are the gratuitous shots of cars blowing up and a hissing cat that emerges from a darkened refrigerator for a cheap scare. Crane's sole battle plan is to come at the devil with an ever-larger arsenal of rifles and rocket launchers, though he's already learned that his foe is impervious to earthly ballistics. In times of confusion, you go with what you know.
Even though most of the action sequences are patently ludicrous, they're easier to swallow than the verbal sparring session between Crane and Lucifer, in which the flyweight enemies debate the nature of God and existence with an intellectual fervor that would do a first-term philosophy major proud. Come back, John Milton; all is forgiven.
No matter how bad "End of Days" is -- and it is wretchedly bad -- we haven't seen the end of these sorts of cinematic face-offs. The public loves a good fight, and the possibilities are endless: Arnold vs. the Jet Stream! Arnold vs. gravity! Arnold vs. the free-market system! So it is written, and so it shall be. World without end, Amen.