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End of Days

How's this for big-budget action movie clichés: The hero is an ex-cop. He's an alcoholic. His wife and daughter were killed in a home-invasion robbery and, feeling guilty that he couldn't save them, he's lost his faith in God and now lives in lonely squalor (we know this because, in his first scene, the hero pounds down a breakfast shake that includes leftover Chinese food and moldy pizza). He's an expert with high-powered assault rifles and exploding rockets. And, oh yeah, he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger.

"End of Days," the $155 million millennium epic that marks Schwarzenegger's return after a two-year, post-heart-surgery hiatus won't win any awards for originality. It borrows freely from a number of better movies, including "The Omen" (a child is born with the mark of the beast), "Rosemary's Baby" (Satan chooses a beautiful, shorthaired woman as his bride) and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (Schwarzenegger saves the world). And it probably won't make audiences cheer as they did in "Armageddon," even though the stakes are equally high and preposterous, because "End of Days" is a bombastic downer of a movie, with an insanely high death toll and a shallow good vs. evil theme that's hard to take seriously.

Forget computer crashes, food shortages and longer lines at the bank. The real problem looming in the year 2000 is the reign of Satan himself! On the eve of Y2K, the Prince of Darkness invades the body of a successful Wall Street investment banker played by Gabriel Byrne (the transformation takes place in the men's room of an upscale Manhattan restaurant). Satan is hell-bent on doing the wild thang with Christine York (Robin Tunney), a 20-year-old pampered WASP girl who, unbeknownst even to herself, was born to be the devil's bride.

If the devil consummates his love for Christine, a hokey prophecy will be fulfilled, the Gates of Hell will open, and Satan will rule the Earth for the next 1,000 years. Standing in his way is a group of Vatican secret agents who want to kill the girl and prevent the union. Standing in both Satan's and the Vatican's way is Schwarzenegger, agent for a high-tech security agency who's gotten mixed up in all this and who's determined to save the girl AND the world.

Hack director Peter Hyams (whose previous credits include the Jean-Claude Van Damme films "Timecop" and "Sudden Death") takes a page from the hyperkinetic filmmaking manual of Michael Bay ("Armageddon") to bring totally impossible stunts to life on screen. Early in the movie, there's a protracted chase scene in which Schwarzenegger and sidekick Kevin Pollak pursue a septuagenarian priest-turned-assassin over rooftops. The scene includes a helicopter boarding in the middle of a New York intersection and is pieced together with what seems like a zillion cuts. By the film's climax, in which Schwarzenegger faces off with Satan in a huge cathedral, the emphasis has (of course) shifted to special effects, including rows of pews impressively toppling like dominoes and a somewhat run-of-the-mill physical representation of the devil himself, designed by Stan Winston ("Jurassic Park") and rendered with computer-generated animation.

"End of Days" has its share of dumb action-movie one-liners (i.e., "Between your faith and my Glock 9 mm, I'll take my Glock."). Films like this aren't known for stellar acting, but Byrne's performance is worth mentioning. In the film's only interesting dialogue exchange, Satan tries to persuade Schwarzenegger to reveal the whereabouts of his unwilling bride, promising to bring back Schwarzenegger's slain family in return. Playing Satan as a seductive, devilishly deceitful salesman, Byrne groans that God is overrated, calls the Bible an "overblown press kit" and says that Satan's coming mastery of the planet is simply a "change in management."

For what it's worth, the film also calls upon Schwarzenegger to venture into heretofore uncharted acting territory. In one scene, he clutches his daughter's tinkling music box to his head and begins to cry. It won't make you sob, but it isn't exactly embarrassing, either. The cast also includes scenery-chewing Rod Steiger as Father Kovak, who presides over a church complete with a Polish peasant woman suffering from the symptoms of the stigmata (don't ask) and an underground bunker where clergy operatives track the oncoming holocaust on the Internet. The always annoying Kevin Pollak plays Schwarzenegger's sidekick, Chicago, whose fate does not come soon enough.

The real problem with "End of Days" is that it pits Schwarzenegger vs. Satan. We're talking evil incarnate here, with otherworldly powers and capable of flying, absorbing bullets without harm and so on. At any given moment, why doesn't Satan simply snuff Schwarzenegger out, like he does with all the expendable characters in the film? Of course, that wouldn't make for much of a movie, but as it stands, Satan has no Achilles' heel, and therefore his ultimate defeat is totally unbelievable.

It's also interesting that religious groups have not taken public offense at this movie (remember the Catholic Church's outcry over "Monty Python's Life of Brian" 20 years ago?), considering that it plays freely with Scripture and portrays Schwarzenegger as a Christ-like figure (in one scene he is symbolically crucified) and Satan as a down-to-Earth, fun-loving guy you might enjoy having a drink with (heck, he's even shown urinating in public!).

Although suckers for big action stunts and effects will enjoy their share of "oohs" and "aahs," "End of Days' is a surprisingly routine action thriller, given its once-in-an-epoch subject matter. It's not the worst film of its type --- far from it --- but hopefully it is among the last of an apparently dying breed: Those overblown action movies that are assembled from the wreckage of other films.

*MPAA rating: R, for intense violence and gore, a strong sex scene and language.

"End of Days"

Arnold Schwarzenegger: Jericho Cane Robin Tunney: Christine York

Gabriel Byrne: Satan

Rod Steiger: Father Kovak

Kevin Pollak: Chicago

A Universal presentation. Director Peter Hyams. Screenplay Andrew Marlowe. Producers Armyan Bernstein and Bill Borden. Director of Photography Peter Hyams. Editor Steven Kemper. Music John Debney. Art Director Charles Daboub. Set Decorator Al Hobbs. Costume Designer Bobby Mannix. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.