'End of Days' a new beginning for Arnold Schwarzenegger
November 22, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) -- In a down 'n' dirty battle between good and evil, waged at the end of the century, would the dark side triumph? Can faith be more powerful than mighty guns and deadly bullets? And can an aging action star still kick some powerful booty at the box office after a two-year hiatus?
Those are questions asked in -- and about -- "End of Days," a supernatural fin de siècle thriller. It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as the heroic Jericho Cane, Kevin Pollak as his buddy Chicago, Gabriel Byrne as Satan and Robin Tunney as Christine York, marked from birth in 1979 as the object of his evil desire. Set to capitalize on pre-millennium fever and Thanksgiving movie madness, it's scheduled to open Wednesday.
"End of Days" is Schwarzenegger's return vehicle. He's taken a lengthy break to recuperate from his 1997 elective surgeries to correct a heart-valve condition. He had to go under the knife twice -- the first operation wasn't successful.
"The choice was made by Arnold," says "End of Days" director Peter Hyams. "Which I thought was an incredibly smart and unbelievably brave choice -- with this material and with this character to put on screen a completely different persona to really surprise people. Arnold is one of those guys who, once he decides he want to do something, he doesn't do it halfway."
It's a physical film, featuring Schwarzenegger's trademark gory violence, but it also makes a solid effort to show the champion bodybuilder in a new, more flawed light.
"Here I start out for the first time with a gun to my head," says Schwarzenegger about Jericho, "wanting to take my life and for the first time I'm on drugs and alcohol. I've lost my family. I've lost my job. It's the end-of-the-rope kind of thing."
That rope is pretty frayed. Schwarzenegger opens the film as a defeated, pathetic former cop who gulps down booze and pills to deal with the deaths of his wife and daughter. He cries (yes, we're serious). And he gets seriously beaten up by a woman who'd be at home on the "The Golden Girls." Finally, he drops his guns for God.
"I did this movie," says the guy so many love to call "Ah-nuld," "because I wanted to come back from my absence of two years with a big bang. I was looking for a while at all kinds of scripts in Hollywood and when I heard about this idea and then I read about it, I said to myself, 'This could be the project I'm looking for.'"
Absence must have truly made the heart valves grow fonder. Still strapping and buff at 52, stylishly clad in black with a stogie nearby, Schwarzenegger is a gracious interviewee. He duly answers the most banal questions, even the one about the URL for his personal home page: "Schwarzenegger.com. What else? Do you think 'Lou Ferrigno.com?' Jesus Christ."
He's articulate, speaking slowly, enunciating carefully, seemingly the Terminator brought to life.
In a move that must have frazzled his handlers, he stays past the allotted interview time to talk about his interpretation of the American dream and to sign a stack of autographs. He chats in German with a journalist who, like him, lived in Munich for years.
But this father of four, married to broadcast journalist Maria Shriver, quickly brushes off suggestions that his surgery may have forced him to wrestle with his sense of mortality and fate.
"The only thing that this movie has to do with my surgery is that I wanted to come back with a very physical role," says the actor who's killed some 300 people on the big screen. He may have made some politicians think they were next, hinting to Talk magazine that he might enter the 2002 California gubernatorial race. Schwarzenegger quickly quashed that idea, as a beleaguered Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura publicly advised him to stick to his screenplays.
Jericho may start out a loser in the film, but Arnold being Arnold, he's not at rock bottom for too long. With lots of his muscles on full display and an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, Jericho is quickly drawn into an attempt by Satan to take over the world. But shootouts and chase scenes notwithstanding, Schwarzenegger says that for him, "End of Days" is a different sort of action flick altogether.
"I think that people now are turning the other way," he says. "We see this in this movie also, that here we talk about redemption and here we talk about not looking for brute strength and for the simplicity and the simple way of solving a problem."
The actor says he waded through stacks of scripts, searching for the perfect vehicle. And although he still looks as muscular and tough as ever, Schwarzenegger's middle-age action-star brethren don't seem to have much of a movie shelf life. Just ask Sylvester Stallone, who opted for pudgy respect in 1997's "Cop Land."
So it's no accident that "End of Days" -- lined up to compete for Thanksgiving action audiences with the Bond flick "The World Is Not Enough" -- features industry-respected supporting actors Pollak, Byrne and Academy Award-winner Rod Steiger (1967 Oscar, "In the Heat of the Night") as a priest.
Pollak says, "Peter (Hyams) -- and these are his words, it sounds a little self-serving, sharing them from me -- his suggestion was that Gabriel and I could lend a credibility, acting-wise, to an otherwise big, sloppy studio action film."
Pollak, best known for the 1995 thriller "The Usual Suspects," says working with the larger-than-life Schwarzenegger was something of a revelation.
"I started to realize that he really is to the cinema, to Americans, our Superman," says Pollak. "In the sense that when you meet him and talk with him initially, it feels like you're interacting with an action figure, not someone human or real. But he is also very aware of and comfortable being sort of a tourist attraction on any set that he works on. When friends and family of anyone visit, he's quick to pose for a picture, very gregarious and friendly in that regard."
Riding with the devil
Given the fact that "End of Days" grapples so aggressively with questions of faith and redemption, it's fair to ask Schwarzenegger about his own beliefs.
"I have more faith now than when I was younger," the Austrian-born athlete-actor says. "My mother took me to church every Sunday when I was young. (I went) so I wouldn't get smacked in the face. When I was 18 and 19, and I was riding high being the bodybuilding champion and all that, I never went to church. I thought the whole thing was absolutely absurd. Then when you get older and start having children, the circle comes around again."
In the film, Satan offers Schwarzenegger's character Jericho the chance to have his wife and daughter back -- for a price. Is there anything out there that would tempt the real Arnold to ride with the devil?
"There is no offer he could make me," he says. "Everything he has to offer is a temporary pleasure. All the things that taste good and give pleasure could backfire, so you shouldn't look at the easy way out."
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