For an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, the apocalyptic action-adventure End of Days is pretty good. But when all is said and done, that's all it is?another Arnold movie, made with a certain artistry and energy but incapable of rising beyond competence because its star is a walking, talking sight gag. He's pitted against Satan here, and of course he wins. He emerged triumphant against an alien big game hunter (Predator), a shape-shifting android (Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and an army of swarthy Middle Eastern terrorists armed with battlefield nukes (True Lies).
In action films (as opposed to comedies) it's necessary to pit the Austrian Oak against preposterously powerful opponents to create even a tablespoon's worth of jeopardy. When faced with regular human foes, he's awesomely implacable?a brick shithouse with cheekbones?and therefore impossible to identify with or worry about. The best you can do is sit back and enjoy his murderous proficiency, in much the same way one might enjoy an exceptionally gory first-person videogame that gives you an assortment of Arnold-type weapons and turns you loose.
This time, Schwarzenegger's character is named Jericho Cane, an alcoholic ex-cop turned security expert who's drawn into a supernatural mystery?but for all intents and purposes, he's Ah-nuld, the narrow-eyed, sarcastic muscleman. (It was never easy to take Arnold seriously, but thanks to The Simpsons, it's even harder. The star has become indistinguishable from animated parody, musclebound screen star Rainer Wolfcastle, whose most famous character is an all-American tough-guy cop improbably named McBain?a lone wolf who machine-guns a roomful of drug kingpins, then quips, "Meeting adjourned.")
One of Jericho's clients, a Wall Street stockbroker (Gabriel Byrne), is targeted for assassination by a shadowy group of religious fanatics that might have ties to the Catholic Church. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the stockbroker is, in fact, merely a host body for Satan, who has come to earth in search of a 20-year-old woman named Christine (Robin Tunney), who was marked for an evil destiny at birth. Nor is it spoiling anything to reveal that Arnold is once against asked to protect a woman against evil forces, and that he does so in his inimitable style?enduring enough punishment to kill 100 normal men, garnishing killings with sub-Bondian wisecracks, kicking every variety of human and supernatural heiny. Universal's marketing people have been going all-out to sell End of Days as a different sort of Arnold movie?perhaps even a horror film that just happens to star Arnold. The first trailer stressed the supernatural spook-show element and only introduced Arnold after a good minute's worth of atmospheric buildup; the posters and newspaper ads suggest The Sixth Sense or Seven.
But don't be fooled?this is the same steroidal cookie in a slightly different wrapper. Tunney, whose character brings new meaning to the phrase "thankless part"?she's a pill-popping, nightmare-plagued victim who alternates crying jags with blank expressions of paralyzed horror?is asked to run around barefoot during the finale, through a subway tunnel and a destroyed church, and she never cuts her feet or even stubs her toe.
In one scene of boozy distress, Jericho strips off a bulletproof vest to reveal a tank top that's cut to show off back muscles and biceps that could never be maintained by an alcoholic working stiff?only a movie star with his own gym and personal trainer. Before the finale, the hero stops by the police station to pick up weapons, including a big pile of automatic pistols and a rifle with a grenade launcher. I got a grin from the way the hero, who hasn't been on the police force for years, just walked into the weapons locker and stocked up without being seriously questioned by anybody?except one cop who halfheartedly trots along after him as he leaves the building, asking, "Hey, where ya going?" He might as well be popping into a corner deli to pick up a pack of Ding-Dongs and a Snapple.
Like all of Arnold's movies, including the good ones, End of Days would be immensely improved by the presence of a real actor in the title role?someone like Denzel Washington or Wesley Snipes, or at least a movie star who is capable of acting when the urge strikes (Bruce Willis, Kevin Costner, Mel Gibson). But then End of Days wouldn't be an Arnold movie?and Arnold only does Arnold movies, because he's not an actor and isn't capable of doing anything else. As my sister-in-law's husband, Greg, said as we left the theater together last week, "When you get Arnold as your star, there's probably not a whole lot you can do." Arnold gets crucified in this one, just as he was crucified in his action-hero breakthrough, 1982's Conan the Barbarian; as in Conan, the crucifixion is merely an interruption in his quest for justice. It's like he pulled his back out while lifting an air conditioner and just needed to lie down for a while.
End of Days is never unwatchable. The script, by Andrew W. Marlowe, is pitched at the level of comic book nonsense?perp takedowns and noisy shootouts alternate with images of crucifixions, stigmata and miracles. For a film that's 30 minutes too long and keeps its hero in the dark about plot developments the audience was hipped to in the first five minutes, it moves along at a nifty clip. And it looks great. Filmmaker Peter Hyams' films always do. Hyams, who specializes in glossy action trash (Running Scared, Sudden Death) and overproduced but fundamentally unsatisfying sci-fi (2010, Outland), is a cinematographer who usually does double duty on all his movies. The rich, dark, dense look of his films is the best thing about them?the only thing worth remembering, usually. He has a fine eye for colliding textures and shapes. He shoots in widescreen and packs the frame with detail, but he doesn't trouble himself that we might not see everything the studio paid to put up there onscreen; he goes about as dark as you can go in a Hollywood movie, sometimes shooting in silhouette. But his brains are all in his eyes. His visual style is so assured (and consistent from film to film) that it's easy to be suckered into thinking his movies will deliver something special. In individual scenes, they do?John Lithgow's panicky space-walk in 2010, the shattering greenhouse in Outland, the sewer-stalking sequence in the otherwise forgettable The Relic. But as a whole, they're derivative and hollow?generic Hollywood blockbusters with visual muscle, just as Arnold is a generic action hero with actual muscle.
In the 80s, Schwarzenegger's masterstroke as a movie star was in realizing that he could build a career out of what were basically ultraviolent slapstick comedies?Itchy and Scratchy cartoons with real actors. Except for the Terminator movies, which were anchored in reality by their fear of what the future might bring, every film he starred in had a jokey, featherweight quality. They were meta-action movies. The presence of this steroid-jacked Teutonic muscleman in the hero's role shifted every onscreen action into the realm of videogame abstraction, so that you weren't laughing and cheering the onscreen mayhem; you were grooving on the predictable absurdities of the genre as a whole. At the end of Predator, Arnold gets punched in the face about 30 times by an 8-foot tall Rastafarian alien and still has enough juice left in him to pummel the space punk in a preposterous Rocky-style 15th-round comeback, then outrun a nuclear explosion and emerge lightly dusted with confectioner's fallout, like an irradiated gingerbread man. The cliche image of heroes outrunning fireballs might not have originated with Arnold, but it would not have become commonplace without the last 15 years' worth of Arnold movies. Oddly, the only Arnold films where his actions (and wounds) had solidity were the two Terminator ones, where he played androids. It hurt to watch him get shot and crushed and tossed around because as a machine, he made sense; he was like a beautiful car you hated to see wrecked.
In cheering Arnold movies, you were also cheering the absurdities of America's pop-culture-addled imagination?the invincible hero who's all things to all people and real to none of them. Arnold was, and remains, a thick-accented immigrant and an assimilated superpatriot; a maverick outsider and a lapdog for the government; a churlish badass and a sweetie pie. He could be a figment of Reagan and Bush-era America's incessantly self-boosting imagination. (I still can't get over the fact that Arnold actually exists; on paper, he sounds like one of those anecdotal Americans Reagan used to just make up for his inaugural addresses?or lift wholesale from old movies.) Arnold never quite seemed real. Therefore his opponents weren't real, and none of the violence was real?although the broken bones and spilled blood suggested otherwise. Media coverage of the Gulf War was spiritual kin to Arnold movies. It showed us destruction on a titanic scale, and on some level, we understood that it could not possibly be as ghostly-clean as it looked?that there had to be messy consequences. Still, the abstraction of the images worked on us subliminally, so that we processed the violence as a movie, or a videogame, or a videogame movie. Arnold was the right action hero for a right-wing time.
Unfortunately for Arnold, the action film landscape has remade itself in the last decade. Audiences respond more strongly to human-scale action heroes who seem to feel pain?physical and emotional. The seeds of this change were planted in the first Die Hard. In that film, Bruce Willis' character was an exceptionally resourceful killer, but he wasn't inhuman. He had real-sounding arguments with his estranged wife, but clearly loved her and their children; he gasped when people hit him, babbled nervously to himself under stress and staggered through the last 20 minutes of the film on bloody feet torn by broken glass.
In retrospect, Willis' hero was the wave of the future?at least where overproduced, super-macho action flicks were concerned. The character's physical vulnerability and love for his family made the film's ridiculous plot and action setpieces more believable and involving. These qualities, present to lesser degrees in the Lethal Weapon films, also gave women a reason to give a damn?something Arnold's action films didn't bother providing until True Lies. There was less need for Arnold-types after studio bosses figured out that human-scale action heroes appealed to men and women, effectively doubling the potential box-office take.
It's funny to think that in the late 80s and early 90s, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and their imitators were relics and didn't know it. In America, the new action hero archetype was fleshed out by Nicolas Cage, John Travolta, Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis and Keanu Reeves; France's Luc Besson came up with the flesh-and-blood antiheroes of La Femme Nikita and The Professional; in Hong Kong, John Woo and his imitators stocked their ballistic ballets with taciturn but vulnerable samurai gunfighters. That Besson and Woo found a place in Hollywood proves that the world was tiring of the Schwarzenegger-Stallone formula even though they kept buying tickets out of habit. Now Stallone is a laughingstock in the United States?an over-the-hill slab of beefcake?and Schwarzenegger can't be far behind. The times have passed them by. The flesh fadeth; muscle, too.
George Lucas may empathize with his celluloid alter ego Luke Skywalker, but as a businessman he acts like Darth Vader.
His latest outrage involves the fate of prints of the first Star Wars movie, which was digitally "improved" for its 1997 rerelease. According to reporting by Jeffrey Wells?whose daily "Hollywood Confidential" columns on the film industry, available at www.reel.com, are indispensable?Lucas is plotting to prevent prints of the original, unaltered, 1977 version of Star Wars from being exhibited.
Lucas and his minions claim it's because most prints are in terrible condition and should not be exhibited for quality reasons. But an alternate, more convincing theory is that Lucas likes his 1997 version and hates the idea that present and future moviegoers could see and prefer the original, pre-digital cut. (They have good reason to prefer the original?it doesn't have that dreadful and redundant Jabba scene, those too-busy digital creature effects and the scandalously re-edited Han Solo-Greedo encounter, which Lucas recut to make it seem like Greedo shot first.)
Lucas prevented a pristine print of the 1977 version from being shown at a Technicolor festival in Los Angeles recently, and has been similarly aggressive about stopping the exhibition of other prints that are in mint condition. The prints of the 1977 version are the only existing record of the way Star Wars looked before Lucas digitally tinkered with it; in making computerized alterations, Lucas and his people worked on the original negative, not a print, effectively obliterating the original version of the movie. And now Lucas wants to prevent prints of that unaltered version from being seen in theaters ever again.
While it's true that millions of videos and laserdiscs of the 1977 Star Wars still exist, it's still pretty chilling to think that Lucas would be so cavalier about rewriting his own professional history, and the collective moviegoing memories of a world full of Star Wars fans. He's like a psychotic, vengeful person who goes through old photo albums and slices out the faces of anybody he no longer likes.