Many actors, directors, writers, and producers in Hollywood come from middle-class, middle-American backgrounds, rife with traditional values from which these would-be artists have fled. Perhaps that's why, when it comes to the word "religious," Hollywood is most comfortable if it's followed by the word "fanatic." The cinema of America's West Coast likes religion only when it provides uplifting, non-denominational angels or apocalyptic, superhuman devils.
Hence, End of Days, a dreary, exploitative action film in which it's devil time again. The plot has the Dark One entering the body of a callow Wall Street suit (Gabriel Byrne) to seek out a 20-year-old virgin named, of course, Christine (Robin Tunney), who has been predestined to bear the devil a son and bring about a new satanic era. The fiendish plot is found out when a tongueless priest -- named, improbably, Thomas Aquinas -- spills the beans to a bitter ex-cop turned security expert named, even more improbably, Jericho Cane. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Jericho, who takes it upon himself to protect Christine both from The Man and from a cadre of killer priests who would perpetrate the small evil of murdering the girl to stop the greater evil of "the end of the world as we know it."
Both Jericho and the kindly Father Kovak (Rod Steiger) take exception to the idea of killing Christine, yet Jericho feels no compunction about mowing down dozens of Satan worshipers to protect her. And that's far from the only logic lapse in End of Days. To cash in on Y2K hysteria, screenwriter Andrew Marlowe indulges several misapprehensions about the meaning and relevance of the word "millennium."
These qualms would be minor if End of Days were even remotely entertaining. But director Peter Hyams does nothing to brighten up or energize Marlowe's dull, confusing script. Even the "comic relief" provided by Kevin Pollak as Jericho's partner is as grating and unfunny as a Paul Reiser AT&T commercial.
For some reason, religious groups have chosen to picket Kevin Smith's Dogma -- a film with a childlike (and childish) view of Christianity -- and yet have ignored this film, which shows Arnold Schwarzenegger being literally crucified. Call it the cheap-thrills factor. In the '30s, audiences flocked to sexually charged biblical epics as much for the titillation as for the sermon. In today's post-Columbine culture, perhaps violence has replaced sex as the new taboo, to be couched in "morally relevant" dramas. The message that End of Days is supposed to carry is that faith is more powerful than guns. But it's unlikely the message will be heard over all the automatic-weapons fire.
-- Film critic Noel Murray lives in Charlottesville, Va., and writes for the Nashville Scene.