Principal Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Vanessa Williams, James Coburn, Robert Pastorelli, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Andy Romano, Joe Viterelli, Olek Krupa, Gerry Becker, Nick Chinlund, Michael Papajohn, Mark Rolston, K Todd Freeman, John Slattery, Robert Miranda, Roma Maffia.
Synopsis: A Witness Protection specialist becomes suspicious of his co-workers when dealing with a case involving high-tech weapons.
Look, it’s hard to be really critical of a film in which Arnie punches an escaped alligator. High hokum of the first order doesn’t come cheesier or more gleefully popcorn-ready than Eraser, this Schwarzenegger action-thriller directed by The Mask helmer Chuck Russell and co-starring both Vanessa Williams and James Caan, although neither were mutually exclusive. A bonkers secret agent premise with high-tech thrills and some really (for the time) shit visual effects, Eraser is lowbrow escapist entertainment you can mark down as the very definition of crowd-pleasing cinema of the highest order. There’s stunts, narrow escapes, junk-dialogue and plenty of plot twists in this bombastic and highest-of-high-concept boilerplate entries, a film that augments its leading man’s chief attributes and the variety of blue ribbon supporting cast on offer here – the likes of James Cromwell, perennial screen victim Danny Nucci (seriously, between this and The Rock and Titanic the poor dude was a prototype Sean Bean, being killed off all the time), Nick Chinlund and John Slattery, all make appearances – and it makes Eraser nigh impossible to adequately critique.
Arnie plays US Marshall John Kruger, arguably the most successful of all on the service working the field of witness protection and relocation – aka, “erasure” – and he’s tasked with helping a former senior executive, Lee Cullen (Williams) to testify against her employer, Cyrez Corporation, who are secretly selling highly powerful railguns to international buyers. Kruger’s boss, Robert DeGuerin (James Caan) and WITSEC Chief Arthur Beller (James Coburn) have uncovered a mole within the organisation that is tipping off assassins to kill high-profile witnesses, which leads Kruger to go on the run with Cullen for her own safety. They are aided by the loudmouth former mobster Johnny Casteleone (Robert Pastorelli), who helps them escape pursuit from the sadistic forces attempting to capture and kill them.
Eraser is a film that offers scant intelligence betwixt the explosions, gunfire and cacophonous Alan Silvestri score accompanying this bananas screenplay. At no point do you sit there and think “this is a film that’s very smart” because Eraser manages to be the exact opposite, and absolutely delights in doing so. This is a stupid, inane movie in every conceivable way, from the preposterous Schwarzenegger being a witness protection agent, the gargantuan action sequences mired in antiquated green-screen effects and some truly risible early-90’s CGI, and the inexplicably terrible dialogue glued together by only James Caan doing his best scenery-chewing assholery, Robert Pastorelli’s charismatic and charming douchebaggery, and the grabasstic sequences of “hilarity” peppered throughout divined from Arnie’s sheer presence in filling the screen.
Written by Tony Puryear and Walon Green, Eraser’s nonsensical plot and thin-as-wafer character work are typically 90’s schlock, nonsensical cliched archetypes thrown together to distil any film into one singular motivating factor: to give the audience a good time. The dialogue, as exposition-heavy as it tends to be here at times, is apocalyptically incoherent but maximises the cool trailer-worthy lines and scenery chewing noted by Russell’s flamboyant and appropriately stylised direction. There’s not a skerrick of subtlety here: why show when you can tell, and why tell when you can just blow shit up, shoot shit down, or blast a variety of henchmen into cinematic oblivion? The answer? It doesn’t matter. Nothing in this film matters, because it’s a movie living completely in its own moment and owing nothing to the audience by the time it’s all complete. Perhaps the most egregious aspect of Eraser’s combustible tableau is that it aims for a huge scope and simply doesn’t deliver. Even the climactic “showdown on the docks” sequence, a sequence involving a duo of incredibly cool electromagnetic weapons (honestly, I haven’t heard of railguns since… what, Doom 2? Quake?) and Arnie’s ability to not bleed out in two minutes from a fridge-sized piece of metal piercing his thigh, manages to rise above it’s patently idiotic absurdist nature by simply being cool as hell. That’s what Eraser is; cool as hell. It’s not intelligent, but it delivers slick, incredibly generic and always effective cinematic catharsis, as both the good guy and the bad guys get what’s coming to them.
When he’s not glaring intimidatingly at the camera or into the middle distance, Arnie makes a good fist of playing John Kruger, a role as ridiculous as it sounds as he “erases” people’s history from all known files, turning them into new people to hide from potential death. Arnie has made a career of not giving two shits about little things like “character” and “personal growth” when he can just punch, kick, blast and explode his way out of any sticky on-screen situation, and he can add Eraser to the notches on his belt in this regard; Eraser offers little nuance or subtlety to Arnie’s value as an actor, offering a comfortable and often predictable litany of routine and absolutely insane action sequences for him to enjoy. Less oriented to the action, but by no less incendiary on the screen is perennial Hollywood bad boy James Caan, who positively chews the scenery, spits it out, sweeps it up, and force-feeds his co-stars with it again in the fabulously evil role of DeGuerin, a good guy turned bad guy who might lack the raw muscle, but offsets that with smarts, outwitting Kruger at almost every turn. Vanessa Williams makes a solid fist of transitioning from successful pop singer into a capable screen actress, and although lacking the magnetism required to accompany Arnie on his adventure she more than stands up to him in verbal sparring and appealing chemistry.
Eraser isn’t really a showcase of Chuck Russell’s directorial prowess, sadly. I mean, it’s hard to go wrong when you only have to point the camera at Arnie and magic happens, which he does (and often), but the film’s tension and action-centric energy feel a touch uneven as the various twists and turns unspool. Chases and fight sequences feel somewhat anaemic compared to Eraser’s cinematic contemporaries, although I guess when a lot of the film occurs at night, or in limited settings, it matters not. Russell helms the film with all the technical flourishes he can muster, and with the exception of a handful of really shoddy visual effects – especially the infamous alligator escape sequence in the New York City Zoo – there’s a distinct perfunctory earnestness to Eraser’s clusterbomb approach to storytelling. Silvestri’s bombastic score elevates every moment with ripe testosterone and thunderous energy, and Michael Tronick’s editing work is, in keeping with films of the period, frenetic without feeling clumsy. It’s hard to spot how this film’s budget topped out at an eye-watering $100m in 90’s dollars, when you have such a lowbrow visual aesthetic (Adam Greenburg’s cinematography isn’t done any real great service with the variety of terrible transfers onto home video formats and streaming currently available), but that it did.
Eraser’s populist escapism and sheer willpower to make the audience love it is only offset by just how poorly the film has aged in the years since. Technologically, Eraser is now several generations behind where we are today, a risk always run by futurism on screen, and several sequences of “cool computer tech effects” are risible compared to modern results. Despite the archaic visuals and the film’s tempestuous relationship with gravity, logic or reason, Eraser is a hugely enjoyable stick of cheesy 90’s goodness that plays for the cheap seats as wide and loud as possible, and in almost every respect succeeds despite obvious deficits. Worth it if only for the edifying sight of Arnie punching the suitcase out of a New York ‘gator, Eraser is definitive era-specific action and one of Arnie’s most accessible middle-tier films. A minor classic.