Arnold Schwarzenegger's career has been, if nothing else, fascinating to watch unfold. Unlike his closest peers/rivals Bruce Willis and Sylvester Stallone, he can't pull off the "everyman" roles as easily - movies like The Story of Us or Cop Land would be unthinkable with Arnold in the lead, whereas they provided their respective actors with some of their best work (serious about Story of Us, by the way - not a great movie but Bruce has rarely been better). Arnold's non-action films (i.e. family comedies) played up his larger than life persona as part of the joke, with mixed results - but you gotta love that the guy followed up True Lies (his second biggest grosser ever) with Junior, which got him pregnant. He's continued to take these oddball risks throughout his career, especially recently, with films like The Last Stand and Maggie offering him new areas to explore that he might not have gotten the chance to (or the interest in) at the peak of his career. Maggie in particular would have been a very different movie if released in the late '80s - it'd probably be two hours of him blowing zombies away, and it'd be the greatest film of all time. But old Arnold takes those risks fairly regularly nowadays, letting himself be more vulnerable with his characters and playing to his age instead of trying to hide it - it doesn't always work, but I'll take any of them a dozen times over another movie like Terminator 5.
So in many ways it's a shame he already made End of Days, because it would be a better fit for his current career path than it was in 1999, when he was coming off not only a heart surgery that kept him out of commission for a while, but also the mega-flop Batman & Robin. Even if that film had been a huge hit, it still would be an anomaly in his career, as it cast him as the villain for the first time in a while and confined him to a suit that kept him out of any typically Schwarzenegger-ian action (he actually did more of that sort of thing in his previous film, the full-blown family comedy Jingle All the Way). So his next film, whatever it may have been, had to deliver the action hero stuff we loved him for, showing that he could still kick ass (and deliver a few one-liners) and get butts in seats. Why he chose End of Days is a mystery; not only was it an action/horror blend that kept shootouts and fist fights to a relative minimum, but it also required some heavy lifting in the acting department, and it's only recently that he's been able to uncover some dramatic chops. Indeed, just a few years before End of Days, he bowed out of Face/Off (at one point set to be the first movie to team him up with Stallone), because (according to the screenwriters at a Q&A for the film in 2012) he felt he wasn't a strong enough actor to do their script justice. End of Days' hero, Jericho Cane*, is an ex-cop who lost his wife and daughter and who we first meet as he's about to put a bullet in his brain - it's a role that would be a fine fit for someone more like Willis or Mel Gibson (or Tom Cruise, who was at one point attached), not Arnold friggin Schwarzenegger.
Granted, if the Devil came to earth it probably WOULD require someone of Arnold's size to take him on, but the movie doesn't have them interact all that much, as it's got a minor Se7en vibe in its first half and an exposition-heavy script that leaves Arnold just standing around listening to the terrific supporting cast (Rod Steiger, Udo Kier, CCH Pounder) talk for lengthy scenes. In fact, the only thing that makes it feel like an Arnold movie is that the plot is rather silly when you think about it. For those uninitiated, it's 1999, a few days before New Year's, and the devil has taken the form of a banker (Gabriel Byrne) in order to mate with his chosen bride, Christine York (Robin Tunney), and he has to do this in the hour between 11pm and midnight on New Year's Eve in order to bring about the end of days (Arnold's character even jokes about it in the film - "Is this Eastern time?"). Some priests want to protect her, others want to kill her for the greater good, and Cane is caught in the middle for reasons that are kind of muddy. We learn that Cane once ratted on some dirty cops (the ones who retaliated by killing his family), so I assume he just wanted to try to save this young girl to make up for not being able to protect his own loved ones, but it's more kind of random that he gets involved at all. Indeed, the film has two or three too many coincidences, not the least of which being that Cane had actually been assigned to protect the banker, who was inexplicably still doing his business despite having been taken over by Satan (as for why the dark lord chose this man to be his meat suit, your guess is as good as mine - we never find out anything about him).
Cane also jumps to incredible conclusions that always turn out right in order to make the plot work. A good guy who is murdered by Satan makes sure to write "Christ In New York" on his chest before being done in, and it takes Cane (a drunk who wants to blow his brains out) all of twelve seconds to figure out it means something else (actual dialogue: "Maybe it's not 'Christ in New York' - maybe it's, 'Chris in New York', 'Christine in New York'... 'Christine York.'"). To be fair, the original script made a lot more sense, and several of the odd jumps and logic confusion are the result of changing scenes around with minimal updating (for example, in the script, Christine wasn't predestined to be Satan's bride because of a birthmark - they just took a female baby at random, so it made more sense that the Satanist folks would already be at the hospital when she was born), but we have to assume 99% of the audience never bothered to look for an older draft of the screenplay.
BUT I AM THAT 1%, DAMMIT. As I've mentioned here before, since the film's theatrical release I have watched it every year on Thanksgiving night, never once staying awake through the entire thing due to ODing on turkey earlier in the day, always promising that I'll succeed next time. And while last week's viewing was even less successful than usual (I passed out around the scene when the Devil visits Cane and tries to bribe him into giving up Christine's location, and didn't wake up until the movie was long over), what little I did see reminded me that for all its goofy plot points and baffling logic, the movie "succeeds" thanks to its split personality existence - it's both a classic Arnold movie and a total 180 from one. Even if it doesn't do them all that successfully, it offers me the things I want from an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle (shootouts! explosions! one-liners that are terrible and amazing at once!) while also giving me things I've never seen in any other of his movies, like a giant bat-demon thing destroying a church, or Arnold being crucified (for those who hadn't already noted the Christ connection with Jericho's initials). It was also the first time he played a human character that died, and as far as I know, that is still the case (he suffers a pretty major wound in Sabotage, but he's still alive when the credits roll), making it kind of historic - while Bruce Willis died all the time and Sly got offed in a few of his early films, seeing a non-robot Arnold go off into the light (literally) is something only End of Days offers. Again, it's not a great movie by any means, but I have to appreciate that the big lug didn't choose something a little more traditional for his big comeback vehicle.
Oddly, the original script was even MORE like classic Arnold in many ways, even though it was written for someone else. In the draft I read (dated February 1998, when Arnold hadn't yet signed on as far as I know), there's a very loose Terminator-esque feel to the second act, keeping Jericho and Christine joined at the hip almost the entire time, and there's even a big action scene at a police station. The key difference is that Arnold's character is the Kyle Reese protector this time around, but it's almost like screenwriter Andrew Marlowe wanted to make "Terminator but with Satan" and got kind of screwed when the actual Terminator signed on to be the hero. While winking at the audience had always been one of Arnold's trademarks (with all the "I'll be back" reprises, and the very existence of Last Action Hero), it wouldn't have worked in this serious action thriller for him to be reminding the audience of one of his most famous roles/films. So while the script got reshaped a lot when Arnold signed on, some of it seems to be due to the fact that they were trying to make it less like an Arnold film, not more like one - and that includes the ending, as Jericho originally lived. I have to respect that the biggest star in the world pushed to let himself die in the same movie he was making to show his fans he was OK after nearly dying for real.
Another funny thing about the script: a scene I always thought for sure was added to "Arnold it up" was always in there - a shootout with some priests who were trying to sacrifice Christine via ritual involving knives. I always wondered why they brought guns along and assumed it was just to give the movie a shootout for Arnold to engage in, but this scene was in the older draft, as was the big rooftop/subway chase early on (albeit in a different context) that also felt like it was teleported in from an unused True Lies sequel draft. (The script also has a terrific little joke after Arnold throws Byrne out the window, for those who know their biblical references: a passerby remarks that he had a "hell of a fall" and Lucifer replies "I've had worse." - heh). The things that really got overhauled (we can assume many were at Arnold's request; money was obviously of no issue on the production) only really served to distance it further from typical action movie and closer to full blown horror - there was a car chase, but no creepy ass apple with crying souls. Basically, the script is an action flick with some supernatural elements, whereas the finished film tries to balance the action and horror tropes**. The tragic backstory is also less complicated - his wife and child were gunned down in a random robbery like Bruce Wayne's parents, not targeted because of Jericho's snitching as it is in the final film. Jericho isn't suicidal in the old script, either (nor does he have that amazing breakfast smoothie with coffee and pizza and Pepto), he's just more of a generic "plays by his own rules" action hero, like Arnold's character in Eraser or whatever. There was even a minor romantic connection between him and Christine that was never even hinted at in the movie, thankfully.
Would the script have made a better movie as is? Perhaps it would be more consistent and less prone to plot holes, but it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. There's no Udo Kier character (and thus no weirdo Society-esque three-way), no albino dude shattering into a million pieces, no Miriam Margolyes character smacking Arnold around with a piano, etc. It also doesn't have the Y2k stuff that started dating the film almost as soon as it came out (by that point I think they figured out that our computers would more or less be okay), but I almost find that more charming with each passing year - it may "date" it, but it's not really in a negative way, I think. There was a time where this seemed like a legitimate and very scary possibility (planes falling out of the sky because their computers shut down!), but it's not like the plot revolves around it - it's just mentioned a couple times. Let's put it this way - in ten or twenty years when people make period pieces about the late '90s, there will be some awful joke about "the upcoming Y2K bug" that people who are amused by Big Bang Theory will find hilarious. This movie offers the same basic joke, but it's an innocent and genuine one, and thus it's fine, even bittersweet in a way - maybe we would have been better off if computers went bye-bye for a while (as long as no planes fell from the sky, that is).
And I think that's part of why I keep up my weird tradition, even though it started as a challenge to see if I can ever stay awake through it with all that delicious Tryptophan running through my system, and I know that as I get older it will just be more and more difficult (it seems I see less of it every year; eventually I suspect I might doze off during the opening credits and not wake up until the sun's out). Whether I see all but five minutes of it, or ONLY five minutes of it, I'm likely see something a little bit "off", whether it's the aforementioned smoothie (I love that this was ADDED to the script - I would kill to be in that development meeting), or the random cat scare that manages to be dumber than the average cat scare (it's in the fridge?), or Arnold shooting at priests. My disjointed viewings don't even really affect anything - even those who watch every frame will feel that the movie kind of jumps around at random, both tonally and narratively. It's a strange stew, one I don't fault anyone for disliking, but find myself wanting to defend it all the same. And for the next four years, this film (which is, after all, about how the world may come to an end because of an inhuman monster threatening to destroy us all while taking the form of a hated New York businessman) will take on a whole new meaning. See you next year, Jericho.
*At least I know Richard Kelly is also a fan.
**It's possible some of these changes were dictated by Peter Hyams, who took over from original director Marcus Nispel after the latter bowed out over those pesky "creative differences." Nispel would eventually direct the Conan remake that Arnold declined to participate in, so let's assume the two men are not best buds.