There’s been a strange movement in the past few years to recast Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan) as a Christmas film. Now I hate Christmas, but one of the few pleasures of this period is sitting down and watching Trading Places (1983 – John Landis), or trying to figure out how close Serendipity (2001 – Peter Chelsom) is to being a good movie (it’s a long way away – I figure it needs more jokes, better continuity and a complete rewrite of the Kate Beckinsale section) or indulging in any one of Shane Black’s movies. Why is it that some ordinary films have picked out to be counter-intuitive Christmas films and not others? Is it just to satisfy the boring opinions of certain men on twitter? If Die Hard, why not End of Days?
I think it’s because whilst End of Days is set at Christmas, that aspect is placed into the background whist coming to the fore is that other great international celebration… Y2K. Like there only being four TV channels, smoking in pubs and the popularity of boob tubes, Y2K is one of those strange, alien aspects of the nineties that is almost impossible to explain to a young person nowadays. But we were genuinely worried that computers would crash and planes would fall out of the sky come New Year’s Day in the year 2000. The first thing we did after midnight (we hadn’t gone out – New Year’s Eve is always a disappointment) was switch on our computers to see if they were okay. And then we went back to watch the Queen grumpily mumble along to Auld Lang Syne. Happy times and places.
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There is nothing quite like the death of a cultural figure to bring out the most asinine reflections of others. Last year we had to process the pantomime that was everyone you know describing Bowie as profoundly important upon their lives, regardless of whether they’d ever valued him previously. Cinema is often like that too – witness the sudden appreciation for the widely denigrated Tony Scott after his death. Movies are vital. They are better than this garbage world in which we live. They are beautiful and interesting and capable of giving us insight into the worlds, lives and innermost thoughts of others (this is uncommonly known as ‘wisdom’.) But one day, those directors you love, those directors who exist outside the canon, your Bernard Roses and Brian Trenchard-Smiths and Lee Daniels and so on, will have fawning, suddenly-appreciative profiles written on those pedestrian websites that pass for film criticism nowadays. And you will feel like your special thing, the part of you that no one else understood, your cultural mythology has been tainted by other people.
Now Peter Hyams hasn’t died. Far from it, he’s currently revelling in his tenuous connections to O. J. Simpson in one of those eight-hour self-important documentaries that Netflix produce. But inevitably, he will die, and suddenly people will talk about a director who they previously ignored, with affected affection. Hyams isn’t a great director; he’s not even technically that good, such is the needlessly excessive editing technique that hampers some of his latter work (though on my most perverse days I would make the case that he is actively trying to counter the slow cinema movement). But he has a body of work that is impressive, and has helmed a large number of proficient and enjoyable movies, and in an industry that calls Len Wiseman ‘visionary’, this is a profound achievement. If we believe in an anti-auterist, anti-canonical cinema, that is based on enjoyment alone, Hyams becomes impossibly important.
Whilst his C.V. is littered with the legal thrillers and buddy cop movies that make up the bread and butter of most workmanlike directors, it his trilogy of sci-fi films that reveal his true talent of nurturing engaging lead performances within grounded, efficacious settings. In Capricorn One (1977) he confronted the dominant naturalistic acting style of the era (performed by Eliot Gould, Sam Waterston and Hal Holbrook amongst others) against a Saturday morning serial background, and subsequently creates an effective piece of conspiracy theory, that reflects on Kubrick’s possible imagined involvement with a faked Moon landing. Outland (1981) can be favourably compared with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), such is the effectiveness of the rotten, run-down production design, but benefits, as most films do, enormously from a genuinely charismatic central performance from Sean Connery. And 2010: The Year We Make Contact (1984) is worthily irreverent to Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in its genuine exploration of the banality of bureaucracy and petty squabbles of our species. It is a more human film than Kubrick’s meditation, and one that benefits from actually having moments of tension in its runtime.
The latter few decades of Hyam’s career have been characterised by a working relationship with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Timecop (1995) could initially be seen as an attempt to build on the success of Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991 – James Cameron), but its romantic plot links it closer to The Terminator (1984 – James Cameron). It lacks either movie’s focus however. Time travel, explosions and accented, muscular leads are all very well and good, but they need to be employed with precision; watching the movie, it is hard to keep track of even which year each scene is set in. Sudden Impact (1995) is a more focussed affair – a film which employs the Die Hard (1988 – John McTiernan) premise of bombs being planted and hostages being taken in a single location – in this case, the domed Pittsburgh Civic Centre. The film sees Hyams move closer to the frenetic editing that is observed in End of Days, but also revels in some lush, rich cinematography from Hyams himself. The success of the film depends on your patience for watching ice hockey matches…
So Hyams was beginning to movie away from his workmanlike background, into a key figure of the nineties action movie scene. All he needed to do now was work with the biggest star on the planet…
Arnold Schwarzenegger had begun to experience some doubt. Since Last Action Hero (1993 – John McTiernan) he had starred in his two greatest comedy films (Junior (1994 – Ivan Reitman) and Jingle All the Way (1996 – Brian Levant), a decent action picture (the plane sequence in Eraser (1996 – Chuck Russel) is extraordinary) and a wonderful film that blended the two (True Lies (1994 – James Cameron’s last hurrah). But the, somewhat unwarranted, reception to his villainous role in Batman & Robin (1997 – Joel Schumacher) was very poor, and he was beginning to experience some health issues. The Adonis was starting to crumble. It’s extraordinary to imagine that this box-office behemoth had not even appeared in a movie for two years by the time End of Days came along. The film almost imagines what has happened to him in the intervening years.
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What’s strange, is that for a man who was one of the last movie stars on the world, one of the final people who was able to get any project produced simply on the value of their surname, Schwarzenegger has been a strangely absent actor. His health issues in the years prior to End of Days removed him from our screens, a pattern that has continued since; from 2005 – 2011 he did not appear substantially in a single film whilst he focussed on his political career, and even recently, filming has taken a back seat to his one season hosting of The Apprentice. Schwarzenegger’s appetite has always been voracious; we’ve seen this in his determination to become an action star, then a cinematic icon, then a comedy actor. Schwarzenegger was always restless.
But to the audience of the nineties, his absence was felt. He had already seen off the Jean-Claudes and Dolphs (the great pretenders) that sought to steal his throne, and his great rivals – Bruce and Sly – were bogged down in their ongoing concern for legitimacy. Only one potential rival was breaking out – the last movie star: Tom Cruise. Curiously, End of Days began life as a potential vehicle for Cruise, though it’s hard to imagine that Cruise would have been prepared to personify the damaged recovery required by the role. End of Days takes the wound of the missing Schwarzenegger and turns it into the text of the film itself. His character is worn down, exhausted and unable to escape his past. It was a depth of performance that Schwarzenegger had never demonstrated before.
Arnold has never been widely acclaimed for his acting (lest of all by his co-stars – Emma Thompson is particularly indiscreet on chat shows). But even if we ignore the truly terrifying horror of his relentless man/machine in The Terminator Schwarzenegger has an enormous capacity for demonstrating sorrow. His face is lined and creaked with trauma and he is distinctly capable of switching off the light in his eyes. For an actor who had relied so clearly on his unique charm and charisma in the past, to see a Schwarzenegger lost and self-destructive is genuinely unsettling. From his opening scenes, we realise that we’re not watching any kind of Schwarzenegger action picture that we’ve ever seen before.
By placing Schwarzenegger (the most inhuman male ever conceived) into the everyman role, the film is forced to re-present him to the audience. An early scene of his features him blitzing and blending an unholy mix of pizza, alcohol and vegetables into a breakfast smoothie, cleverly lampooning the extreme diets body-building athletes undertake to maintain their physiques. But for the first time in his career, Schwarzenegger is forced to become a more physical performer. As an ‘Average Joe’ he is unable to stand around mowing down enemies with large machine guns as is his usual routine. Instead he lunges at people, and uses his enormous physicality to batter his opponents – even that in itself, the chaos of bodies falling, is a sight we have not seen in a Schwarzenegger picture before.
Schwarzenegger has been no stranger to self-sacrifice as a climax in his pictures, and you can argue that in such a religious movie, the use of a Christ-like (the first ‘suicide as heroism’ narrative) death is necessary. But Hollywood’s use of suicide is one of its greatest lies; alongside the trope of schizophrenia and psychopathy as charismatic complexes, suicide is regularly presented as a brave act. The truth is that it is rarely so, and it benefits no one to present it with such nobility. Then again, if the early Christians rewrote the execution of their leader as an atonement story, why can’t Hollywood do the same…
End of Days falls into a peculiar time in the history of Christianity. It is symptomatic of the religiously-influenced films of the time (count among them The Ninth Gate (1999 – Roman Polanski) and the Keanu Reeves starring The Devil’s Advocate (1997 – Taylor Hackford) that indulges in the most pedestrian of cinematic presentations of Christian iconography to explore the reality of evil. They present ideas from Christian history with little consideration for the theology behind them – in End of Days the name Thomas Aquinas is presented for no reason other than it is part of the Christian mythology that is likely to familiar to most of the intended audience through cultural osmosis at the very least. The fact that these films present the Devil as a very ‘real’ threat (a strangely sincere concern for believers) would ensure that the film’s violent and sexual content would be forgiven by the audience. In the nineties the church was in a state of ‘managing decline’ and the morally uncomplicated presentation of religious ideas would not continue for much longer. The interlinked rise of religious terrorism, the shift in the church to fundamental Pentecostal theology, and the growing identification of an aggressively antagonistic atheism ensured that religion could never be used as background decoration for plot again.
By the end of the decade, the films of the early nineties have already moved into cultural touchstones. End of Days is a film enormously influenced by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, not least in its central star, but in the quiet intrusion of CGI villains into a still-physical framework. Action cinema was not yet at the stage where entire sequences were constructed with PCs, and instead, this burgeoning technology was used to augment very real actors, in very real locations. Strangely, this seems to ‘date’ the film as much as its quaint presentation of Christianity. But the film is pioneering in its use of editing; it is one of the first few action films to take on board the MTV music video montage cut and apply it to a narrative. Hyams was recognising that the audience was growing in its ability to maintain an understanding of physical space across rapid cutting. It’s not always used judiciously – at one point Hyams employs five different shots just to show Schwarzenegger passing from one railway carriage to another – but it does begin to show the way action cinema was going to go.
There is a solid construction to the movie, but despite the plethora of iconic deployment (its religious overtones) and destruction (the erosion of Schwarzenegger’s carefully constructed movie star persona), the film is strangely flimsy. So it just didn’t come together for Hyams; he hadn’t made the film that would propel him into the major leagues. And had Schwarzenegger been able to convince us that his range was larger than quips and explosions?
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Peter Hyams continued to direct intermittently, though his most significant work in the action genre since remains the two direct-to-video films where he acted as cinematographer for his son John Hyams: Universal Soldier: Regeneration (2009) and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning (2012). Whilst big budget action cinema descended into sloppy CGI-dependant franchises, in the new millennium some of the most exciting action cinema work has been found in the DTV arena. The fight sequences within these films would stand in opposition to the messy, lazily cobbled-together editing that dominated the mainstream; they consisted of extended brawls, often shot in mid distance using long takes, that showed a clear understanding of physical geography. They are exhilarating and exhausting, and showed a mature return to the more traditional composition that Hyams employed in End of Days.
Arnold Schwarzenegger continued his work in the action genre, but the directors of James Cameron and Paul Verhoeven’s stature were not available. He inevitably returned to the franchise that made him a star in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003 – Jonathan Mostow). It’s a film that is not dreadful, though it limps its way through a near note-for-note re-tread of T2, and defies its own interior logic repeatedly (as the appeal of the film was little more than the presence of Schwarzenegger himself, the T-850 defies develops a form of consciousness that directly counters its programming – Schwarzenegger was too clearly a hero by this stage to be a simple robot). Realising that perhaps his time was up, Schwarzenegger threw himself into a new challenge, and was elected governor of California.
At the end of this questionably successful period, he wrote his autobiography Total Recall (which is fascinating, largely because how deeply in love he was with his ex-wife at the time of writing) and returned to movies, firstly with the entertainingly nonsensical The Expendables (2010 – Sylvester Stallone) and the subsequent sequels in which he performs on little more than the nostalgic appeal of his iconography.
However, he proceeded to star in a trio of extraordinarily well-crafted action films: The Last Stand (2013 – Kim Jee-Woon), Escape Plan (2013 – Mikael Hafstrom) and Sabotage (2014 – David Ayer). Schwarzenegger was able to understand that the cinematic landscape had changed since his early retirement and that he could no longer headline the tentpole summer blockbusters. Instead, he adapted his performance to suit the mid-budget action film level; in each movie, Schwarzenegger is capitalising on his age. The films feature nuanced performances that reflect the moral ambiguity that can only come from an individual who has operated in the political sphere. He brought a lifetime of regret to his roles (in that sense End of Days prefigures this attribute), but demonstrated that there was still a cinematic thrill to be felt by Arnold doing what he does best – terminating the oncoming hordes with a giant gun of some form.
But Schwarzenegger was never one to rest on his laurels, and began to push himself even further in his chosen profession, expanding his range even further. In Maggie (2015 – Henry Hobson) and Aftermath (2017 – Elliot Lester) Schwarzenegger began to perform with a degree of naturalism, shedding the easily caricatured quipping bodybuilder performance that had fuelled his career. He plays lonely, achingly-compromised individuals in both films, roles that are about as far away from a straightforward hero as possible. He even quite wonderfully spoke in his native tongue on screen for the first time in Escape Plan. It’s as if old-age had finally brought a comfort of self to the restless businessman who changed his whole physique to achieve is dreams.
Schwarzenegger is a more influential performer than many in Hollywood care to realise. Most modern day action stars (generally called Chris something-or-other) imitate his heady mix of violence and one liners. Male action stars torture themselves to re-sculpt their bodies to something close to the Schwarzenegger ideal through mixture of relentless exercise and boiled chicken dinners seven times a day. Filming schedules are built around the intensely erotic scenes where they will take their top off, with the actor often dehydrating themselves for days to shed excess water in their bodies. The effort they expend making themselves appear heroic is extraordinary. But for Arnold, it never was. He made it seem easy and he lived his life with a degree of self-aware humour that punctured the sacrificial burden of training and dieting that has dominated his whole life. He was an inspiration to us as a child; we knew the world was a little safer because he existed, and he is an inspiration nowadays (he wrote in his autobiography about denying yourself the excuse of ‘I have no time’ with twenty-four hours in a day; this article would never have been written without reading those words).
Arnold Schwarzenegger never acted the hero. He was the hero.