SO THIS nurse (Miriam Margolyes) picks up a newborn at a Manhattan maternity ward and lovingly takes the baby girl to a secluded corner, where a surgical team is waiting.
As the cooing baby lies on the operating table, one of the surgical team opens a glass case containing a nasty snake. Hoisting the serpent aloft, he slices its gut and lets the blood and slime pour over the baby.
No, this is not an expose about HMO medical coverage. It's the over-the-top beginning of "End of Days," an apocalyptic thriller featuring three of the most powerful entities known to man: God, Satan and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
"When a thousand years has ended," it saith in Revelations 20:7, "Satan shall be loosed from his prison."
But nowhere does the Bible say "and Hollywood shall bear these tidings unto us in really bad action movies."
Twenty years later, the girl, who bears the birthmark of the antichrist on her wrist, has grown up to become Christine York (Robin Tunney).
She suffers disturbing hallucinations and dreams about Satan. Her biological parents have died under suspicious circumstances and that sweet nurse has become her adoptive mother. Holy Rosemary's grownup baby!
Now, it's a few days before New Year's Eve 2000 -- when the devil's millennial timeout will come to a close. All he has to do for darkness to rule the earth is enter the body of a male mortal, then impregnate his chosen breeder just before midnight.
"Is that Eastern Standard Time?" says ex-cop Jericho Cane (Schwarzenegger) when he hears about this satanic plan. (Jericho Cane? Who thinks up these names?). Unfortunately, that EST comment is one of the few amusing moments in a ridiculous movie.
"End of Days" is all fire-and-brimstone bunk, a tired compendium of involuntary crucifixions, grim messages carved into human flesh, fly buzzings, ominous choral chants on the soundtrack and at least one head twisting. And Schwarzenegger -- stubbled, bulky and loaded for bear -- seems to pay no attention to these laughable cliches. He's looking to save the world, no matter how silly the situation.
As Jericho, Schwarzenegger has the usual movie-ex-cop problems: He drinks too much. His wife and daughter were slaughtered by mysterious assassins. And he's a corporate security expert with a funny sidekick -- Chicago, played by Kevin Pollak.
Jericho and Chicago become involved when a satanically possessed gunman fires at their client. Chasing the gunman down -- in a nicely done helicopter-chase sequence -- Jericho finds out some weird stuff.
The asssailant wears a priest collar. He raves on and on about the millennium. His room is full of satanic graffiti. And he seems to have cut out his tongue and left it in a jam jar. This is no ordinary hit-and-run.
It turns out Jericho's client (Gabriel Byrne) is just the man for Satan's design. The unnamed businessman makes a bathroom visit at a fancy Manhattan eatery. Satan (or a series of special-effects ripples in the air) enters his body. The re-created man returns, deep-kisses a surprised woman at her table and walks into the night. Boom! The restaurant's a fireball. No one seems to notice or care. Evidently, this kind of thing happens all the time in New York.
The rest of the movie -- and that's a big chunk of plot I'm saving you from -- concerns the battle between Arnold and Satan. Oddly, the master of the underworld seems quite intimidated by our Austrian-born Terminator. He has no problem wasting other characters -- either instantly or in torturous, incendiary ways.
But like the villain who always leaves James Bond alone with a ticking bomb and everything but the keys to the fortress, this devil beats him into a pulp, smacks him up against walls, leaves him hanging by his fingers from vertiginous window ledges, but always lets him live. How conveeeeeenient, as Church Lady would say. Now I understand Old Nick's real agenda: Not to let darkness reign o'er the Earth, but to appear in as many bad biblical-prophecy thrillers as possible. Now that's scary.
END OF DAYS (R, 122 minutes) -- Contains grotesque acts of violence, profanity, obscenity, sexual scenes and nudity. Area theaters.