Directed by Peter Hyams

The last time Arnold Schwarzenegger starred in an apocalypse-themed action movie with a Guns N' Roses theme song was in Terminator 2, the biggest and loudest action movie that had ever been seen. Since that time, he's produced one bona fide balls-to-the-wall action flick (True Lies), two pale imitations (Eraser, Last Action Hero) and a parade of often-witless self-parodies (Junior, Jingle All the Way, Batman and Robin). Fans have long been waiting with bated breath for the "real" Arnold to emerge once again, the Austrian oak with the groan-inducing one-liners delivered in that unique accent, the man who seems to be almost in on his own joke but never quite gets it. Most important, though, we've missed the plain and simple ass-kicking of the Schwarz's earlier days.

Given that director Peter Hyams managed to temporarily resuscitate Jean-Claude Van Damme's career with Timecop and Sudden Death, and given the aforementioned T2 similarities, there was plenty of reason to hope that End of Days would be the grand-slam battle royal to end them all, a take-no-prisoners, blow-up-the-world celebrity deathmatch pitting Arnold against his toughest foe to date -- Satan. Yes, there was hope. But how soon we forget that after working with Van Damme, Hyams went on to direct The Relic.

End of Days, sadly, follows exactly the same trajectory as that ill-conceived "monster in a museum" movie: Establish a simple premise, give the main characters an hour to catch up with what the audience already knows, and show no serious action until that time. In this case, the premise is, essentially, that Satan (Gabriel Byrne, still clad in Stigmata gear) wants to get his hands on Robin Tunney (The Craft and Niagara, Niagara). Because Satan is evil, his hands' being on Robin Tunney would be a very bad thing. Therefore the goal is to keep the twain apart. It's as simple as that. Yet it takes an hour of screen time for Schwarzenegger and his smart-ass partner, Kevin Pollak, to rendezvous with Tunney and, subsequently, Satan. In the meantime, there's lots of self-destructive rage from Schwarzenegger, who's channeling Mel Gibson's suicidal widower in Lethal Weapon and even more dime-store religious hokum. (Did you know that 666 turned upside down is 999? As in 1999?) Sad to say, this is about as deep as it gets.

There are two ways to go with a movie like End of Days: Either take it seriously and do The Exorcist on steroids, or make everything so extreme that the audience doesn't care what happens so long as a wisecracking muscle man whips butt (à la most of Schwarzenegger's earlier films). Unfortunately, this movie straddles a middle ground that's unlikely to fully please anybody. This is not to say that it's without its charms, mostly of the over-the-top variety. When Tunney's character is born, for instance, the baby is promptly whisked away to a dark basement, where a pentagram-wearing Udo Kier proceeds to slice a live rattlesnake in half and feed the baby snake blood. (Sadly, Kier and Schwarzenegger never meet onscreen for a battle of the accents.) When we first meet Arnold (whose character's name is Jericho; did we mention that this movie's short on subtlety?), he's making himself a breakfast milkshake of coffee, whiskey, Pepto-Bismol, Chinese takeout and a slice of pizza he finds on the floor: "Breakfast iss da most impawtent meal off da day, right?"

And Byrne's Satan, when he's not causing unfeasibly large explosions or urinating flammable petroleum, is like the Hollywood agent from hell, referring to the Bible as "an overblown press kit" and the forthcoming apocalypse as "a change of management." He even (unwittingly?) quotes the Spice Girls: "Tell me what you want. Tell me what you really want." You half expect Tunney to hit him with "If you wanna be my lover/You gotta get with my friends."

There's nothing wrong with this kind of lunacy, of course. It's just that there's not enough of it. Couldn't Satan arrange for some of his followers to fight Arnold earlier in the movie, so that at least there'd be some action while we wait for him to figure things out? Does Robin Tunney really have to give that clichéd "why must I be different?" speech? Is there a point to the woman with stigmata who's tied up in the church basement (other than to remind us that Stigmata was a very similar film)? Does anyone care about endless scenes of Arnold drinking and bemoaning his lost family?

All is not lost, however. Like The Relic, End of Days perks up considerably in the third act with lots of crashes, explosions and blood. And when Satan finally takes his true form, the Stan Winston-created critter that emerges is suitably cool, reminiscent of a Todd McFarlane drawing come to life (ironically more so than anything in McFarlane's own Spawn movie).

Schwarzenegger, meanwhile, actually makes a fair go of acting. Not only does he manage to avoid a single wooden line-reading (even when talking to himself -- no mean feat), but he also looks suitably pained when he is seriously beaten, shot and even crucified. It may take Satan to make Schwarzenegger seem like an underdog, but age is also creeping in, adding more lines to his face, and damned if it doesn't suit him pretty well. Like Clint Eastwood, he's gonna hang in there for the long term -- provided he can find better material than End of Days, of course.

Opens Nov. 24.

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