Where The Terminator is a classic partly because, as star Linda Hamilton put it, it ‘served [Schwarzenegger] very well’, Eraser is a disposal bit of action fluff because it totally ignores everything about Schwarzenegger that makes him such a Hollywood oddity.
For one thing, there’s that flat, Teutonic accent. It was fine for a cyborg from the future to have that accent without any explanation – he’s a cyborg from the future, what do you want him to sound like? But it’s a little harder to accept that distinctly European sound coming out of the face of John ‘Eraser’ Kruger, US Federal Marshal with the Witness Security Protection Program. No one ever mentions it, but instead of this helping to detract attention from how foreign he is it serves only to highlight how studiously everyone is metaphorically not staring at Schwarzenegger’s massive metaphorical zit.
Then there’s his physique. Sure, by the time of Eraser’s release in 1996 he’s not quite as bulky as the barely mobile hulk of muscle he was in The Terminator. But there are still enough traces of the steroid-bound slab about him to remind you of Clive James’ memorable description of Arnie as ‘a brown condom stuffed with walnuts’. In other words, it’s a body capable of holding basic poses, and of looming over you in a threatening way, and … not a lot else. It is not, as Eraser’s opening scene asks you to believe, the lean, agile, lithe frame of a ninja. Right from the get-go, you’re thinking “That’s not Arnie, that’s a stunt man.” This is a major problem for a movie that is trying to cruise along on its leading man’s all-action reputation.
But this is only the beginning of Eraser’s mismanagement of Schwarzenegger. The script demands that the star of Predator and Commando delivers a sensitive and caring romantic lead, but makes sure he’ll fail by casting a pre-Ugly Betty Vanessa L Williams as the potential Mrs Eraser. Wonder no more what happens when a former Mr Universe and a former Miss America are asked to stop standing around looking marvellous and try to generate some on-screen chemistry with each other, because the answer is … nothing. Well, almost nothing: it’s the same sort of reaction you get when you put milk on your cornflakes, in as much as things go soggy after a while.
In fairness to Williams, her part is more plot device than actual character. Williams is supposed to be a high-flying executive at a weapons company that has started trading with parties hostile to the United States. She is the whistleblower, so we know that she is a smart and principled over-achiever. That’s all in the script, so Williams doesn’t have to do any work to convey that, but she is allowed no room to show us anything else. For example, when her ex-boyfriend Darryl is blown to Kingdom Come by the bad guys, she and Schwarzenegger have the following deathless exchange as they speed away from the scene:
Lee: Oh my God, Darryl!
John ‘Eraser’ Kruger: Lee, you’re alive. That’s the most important thing.
And Darryl is never mentioned again. Now, I don’t expect a big dumb action film to provide much by way of insight into its characters’ interior lives, but surely it could allow its lead actress a bit more leeway for conveying grief, survivor’s guilt, despair or whatever else than, “Oh my God, Darryl”?
Perhaps the clue to Eraser’s deep sense of ‘will this do?’ lies in its opening titles, which fairly scream “serious political thriller ahead” (scrolling computer code, burning ID cards etc), despite Eraser being as serious as a whoopee cushion. It’s packed to the gunwales with completely implausible stunts, sci-fi guns that shoot rays of conical blue light, CGI crocodiles and Italian American stereotypes. Apparently, the brief to the people who designed those titles was “All the President’s Men for the 1990s”, when it would have been closer to the truth to say “a cross between Super Mario Brothers and a Bond film”.
The contradictions don’t stop there – having established in the first scene that Kruger is the kind of lone wolf saviour fond of waving off pathetic gratitude with “You’ll never see me again”, the plot then makes a total liar out of him by having him return to at least two of those pathetically grateful guys for help.
If this all sounds like an agreeable romp with its tongue firmly in its cheek, you’d be wrong. While the screenplay writers clearly envisaged moments of levity, those were pretty much lost on the way to the screen. Even when Kruger shoots dead (an obviously CGI) crocodile with the line “You’re luggage”, it’s not enough to dispel the feeling that Eraser is a really silly film taking itself very seriously. Little wonder that time has erased this film from the must-see action flick roster – for all its desperate attempts to throw everything at us, including James Caan and a shipping container, it’s a boring, witless ride. “Oh my God, Darryl!” indeed.