Near the beginning of the entertainingly trashy End of Days, the big bad guy himself — Satan, looking remarkably like a translucent CGI blob — swoops through the streets of Manhattan. Because this is a big-budget action-thriller, his arrival is heralded by exploding gas mains, exploding cars — just a whole lot of explosions. Satan whooshes around the city for a while before he spots a well-dressed man through the window of a posh restaurant, who very much resembles Gabriel Byrne. Satan chooses to occupy this man — a Wall Street banker — for no apparent reason except that he’s Gabriel Byrne, man; he just looks so cool in that black coat.
End of Days is best seen, and enjoyed, as the ultimate high-concept crap: the main millennial event in Madison Square Garden, the fight of the century — Arnold Schwarzenegger vs. Satan. Until it bogged down in a lot of clichéd hand-wringing about faith (as well as a batch of largely cheesy effects), I had bad fun with it. Schwarzenegger is Jericho Cane (check the initials), a bitter, alcoholic ex-cop whose sweet-faced wife and daughter were killed because he wasn’t home to protect them from thugs; that pushes absentee-father guilt about as far as it can go. Jericho, it seems, used to believe in God until his dual loss taught him that God can be a real dick sometimes. The movie is set up so that Jericho must regain his faith in order to defeat Satan. (As usual, only Christian faith will do the trick.)
It’s the last few days of December 1999, and Satan has travelled here for both business and pleasure: In the final hour of the millennium, he must impregnate a woman who has been marked to bear his spawn. That woman is the cutely named Christine York (Robin Tunney, a good actress who seems rather lost here), who has nightmarish apocalyptic visions; this being the ’90s, she’s on a bunch of medications under the supervision of priest/therapist Udo Kier, though if my therapist were Udo Kier, I wouldn’t take Xanax or even aspirin on his advice. Jericho must find and protect Christine before Satan can capture her and show her his “oh” face.
Arnie is Teutonically amusing as always; this movie requires its own leap of faith, as most of Arnie’s movies do — that people can live and work alongside him without ever noticing that he’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. (His standard unimpressed schlumpy partner is played here by Kevin Pollak.) And he’s been given a terrific nemesis in Gabriel Byrne, who seems to take his cue from “Sympathy for the Devil”; an eminently reasonable man, Satan is witty and seductive, and Andrew Marlowe’s script leaves out the usual rhetorical pomp. “We’ll rule side by side,” Satan promises Jericho. “It’ll be so cool.” The always engaging Byrne plays Satan as a guy who keeps himself entertained — what good is being evil if it isn’t fun?
Of course, we’ve seen 1,001 variations on this conflict; the bloated climax feels like a megabudget version of every season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Part of the degraded charm of End of Days is its buffet-table derivative approach — it’s not shy about scooping a little Omen here, a bit of Seven there, and the movie’s tone owes a lot to the fin-de-siecle paranoia of Strange Days. There’s even a ridiculous helicopter-chase scene early in the movie that has practically nothing to do with the plot, as if this were a James Bond film, with Satan as the all-time diabolical villain. End of Days is the sort of pulpy claptrap you might have caught as the second feature at a drive-in 20 years ago. As such, it has a certain shitheaded appeal: If you’re going to make a big, goofy action-thriller about the millennial coming of Satan, you might as well hire Schwarzenegger and go all the way with it.