With its glossy urban grime, its millennial mumbo jumbo about the spirit that shall be loosed ”when the thousand years are over,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest movie, End of Days, evokes a queasy deja vu: It’s the apocalypse as rerun.
Satan, it seems, has arrived on earth, inhabiting the body and the elegant black wardrobe of a Wall Street tycoon (he must have seen ”The Devil’s Advocate”). Played by Gabriel Byrne with an insinuating contemptuous gleam, he has come to sire a new, malevolent messiah, which he must do before the New Year’s Eve clock strikes midnight. His prospective mate? A young woman named Christine York (Robin Tunney), who, though innocent herself, was marked at birth with the sign of the Antichrist. (In the opening scene, she is baptized in rattlesnake blood by a cult of Satan’s followers.)
The director/cinematographer Peter Hyams gives ”End of Days” a glistening night-bloom look, combining action and rot, low kicks and high prophecy. The movie is frequently silly, yet eminently more watchable than such leaden Schwarzenegger efforts as ”Eraser.”
Byrne, lounging with arrogance, his mouth poised in a soft smile, makes a dulcet-suave demon, playful in his very inhumanity, especially when he’s not shown the proper respect (his quick dispatching of a skateboard jerk is particularly satisfying). Still, I kept wondering why this supremely clever evil one, who navigates the cosmos with the greatest of ease, needed to skulk through every dirty corner of Manhattan just to locate poor Christine. The film is built on that sort of illogic.
That said, the shrewdest thing about ”End of Days” is the way that it builds the notion of a vulnerable, weakened Schwarzenegger, in the wake of his well-publicized heart surgery, right into the movie. Here, he’s the anti-Terminator: a killing machine who, in order to save the world, must lay down his arms and embrace faith — that is, the limits of his strength.
There are moments in ”End of Days” when you feel that Arnold’s stuntman should have received co-billing, but then, an aging action star is a bit like an aging bombshell; there’s something noble in the way that he continues to flaunt what’s no longer so powerful. Besides, we’ve all been with Arnold too long now not to stand by him while he faces down the end of his days as the invincible image of Hollywood muscle.