Smoking Cane

End of Days
area theaters

Arnold Schwarzenegger is less a leading man than an immensely popular prop--a fact directors ignore at their peril. He's a lumbering, imposing prop, yes. A widely recognized, well-compensated prop, to be sure. A prop gifted with rudimentary speech abilities, even. But he's a prop nonetheless, and, as such, his presence only makes sense in certain contexts. Unless the intentions are comic, I would offer, a filmmaker is no less ill-advised to deposit Arnold in an ill-fitting scenario than he would be to cast Herbie the Love Bug against type.

For much of his Marvel Comics reading of the Book of Revelation, End of Days, director Peter Hyams plays inventively with action-figure Arnold. Cast as cynical bodyguard-for-rent Jericho Cane, our beloved lump of sinew is dangled from windows, suspended from helicopters, pinioned to the wall by a superhuman hag wielding a grand piano, even hoisted skyward in a gruesome parody of the crucifixion. And, as antiheroes will do, Cane gargles with vodka, feeds on a blended concoction of Pepto Bismol and Chinese takeout, and spouts nihilistic one-liners such as "I like scumbags. They pay better."

Hyams even charitably saves Arnold the effort of devising a distinctive characterization by introducing him as an unshaven silhouette pointing a Glock at his own forehead, and then supplying a ready-made backstory (former cop gone to pot after the murder of his wife and daughter...you know the drill), leaving Our Hero free to embark upon the real business at hand. Arnold slugs priests! Arnold blasts holes in subway tunnels! Arnold shouts at the devil! "You want to fuck with me?" he taunts Satan. "You're a fucking choirboy compared to me! A choirboy!"

That's right--Satan. And here's where Hyams runs into trouble. Having assumed the form of Gabriel Byrne three days before the close of the millennium, the Unholy One stalks New York determined to impregnate a young woman (Robin Tunney) with Antichrist seed. Unaware that she has been designated since birth to incubate this infant beast, Tunney's character, along with her reluctant Austrian protector, gets caught between rival camps of priests: a crew of scholars (one of them played by Rod Steiger!) who sift through apocalyptic data on their IBMs, and a knife-wielding Vatican subsect out to snuff the girl before she's demonically implanted. (Alas, by focusing on the need to prevent the conception, the film avoids the intriguing question of whether the Catholic Church would countenance the abortion of a fetal Antichrist.)

Now, I know it's bad form to judge a thrill ride based on its plot, but End of Days leads with its chin, flaunting its lurid absurdity with the gothic sanctimony of a Latin midnight mass. Arnold, meanwhile, peppers his speech with the usual pseudo-ironic action-flick wisecracks. (Priest: "I'm not afraid to die." Cane: "Good, 'cause I'm not afraid to kill you.") But is this a tale of redemptive good and evil or a shoot-'em-up? Inquiring minds wanna know--and so does Arnold, who demands, "Why don't you just stop all this church talk and tell me what the hell is going on?" I mean, even if your disbelief is suspended by doubly reinforced steel cables as thick as Arnold's biceps, the fact that Schwarzenegger must prevent Satan from knocking up a hysterical virgin seems designed to make you either giggle or grimace.

Don't get me wrong: I can handle a Satan who's one part Dracula and two parts Terminator, seducing pallid bedmates with his swarthy brooding one minute and recoiling temporarily from Glock blasts the next. I can take a Lucifer who, bullshitting with Arnold in the scuffed consonants of some indiscriminate outer borough, speaks breezily of his proposed triumph over God: "Think of it as a change of management." I can even take a Beelzebub who leaves Jericho alive to witness the fruition of his diabolical plan like some cut-rate James Bond supervillain. But really--a Prince of Darkness who is not only unable to annihilate Arnold but who's incapable of duping him? I mean, this guy gets one chance every thousand years, and he flubs it? A cosmos whose driving force of malevolence can be outwitted by Arnold Schwarzenegger is a safer haven than we ever suspected.

But is that such a good thing? I happen to have misplaced my copy of The Late Great Planet Earth, so clue me in. Isn't Satan's triumph kinda obligatory in order to usher in the Second Coming? In other words, shouldn't believers be miffed that Arnold's martyrdom postpones Judgment Day indefinitely? I mean, if Christ, as rumor has it, died for our sins, Arnold's Jericho Cane seems to sacrifice himself so that we can keep on sinning. And while this particular heathen is much obliged, I doubt I'd be so appreciative if I hadn't allowed my lapsed Catholic soul to fall into secular disrepair a decade ago. Alas, End of Days overlooks such doctrinal fine points. And that's a sin. But I suppose it's not the end of the world.

 
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