' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Eraser (1996)

Friday, August 25, 2023

Friday's Old Fashioned: Eraser (1996)

There’s a sequence in Charles Russell’s 1996 action thriller “Eraser” when US Marshal John Kruger (Arnold Schwarzenegger) jumps out of an airplane sans parachute and then tracks a parachute down in the sky (it’s complicated) which ends with him crash landing atop some beater in a car lot. Two cute kids just happen to be standing there. “Where is this?” Kruger, dazed but alive, asks. “Earth,” replies one of the kids. If memory serves, this comical moment punctuated all of “Eraser’s” TV ads of the era. It was 1996, after all, the summer of “Independence Day” in which the aliens were as much the stars of the show as the stars themselves, and this scene was about as close as the “Eraser” marketers could get to catching ID4’s wave. I can’t remember what I thought at the time, but Schwarzenegger must have seemed a little square set against extra-terrestrials, and the tornadoes of “Twister,” and the franchising of “Mission: Impossible.” Uncoincidentally, the next summer was “Batman & Robin,” were Arnie got top billing but spiritually still deferred to the material, and for as much as that movie was critically lambasted, it foreshadowed the future (our present). Things were never quite the same for The Austrian Oak. And though “Eraser” does not approach the muscular poetry of “Predator,” or the pyrotechnical twinkle of “Commando,” it is a solid example of the endangered professional, star-driven thriller.

Kruger is a US Marshal for the Witness Security Protection Program who, ahem, erases the identity of key government witnesses so they can never be tracked. The opening sequence in which Kruger expunges the identity of a mafioso turned informant Johnny Casteleone (Robert Pastorelli) is both an action-oriented explainer of the Marshal’s methods and set-up for later when we discover Johnny’s new existence as bartender at a drag club which, I guess, both does and does not feel dated, turning the locale into a truly dumb punchline though at least it puts the locale up there on the screen. In 2023, that scene would have to be cut in all Tennessee theatrical prints. The main identity erasure, however, belongs to Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), a defense contractor exec who decides to blow the whistle on some sort of secret superweapon that various bad government actors intend to sell on the black market. Williams was apparently chosen for the role at the suggestion of Schwarzenegger’s then-wife Maria Shriver who was not and is not a casting agent and apparently for good reason. Williams is rigid rather than fiery which might have worked around had she not been cast opposite the equally rigid Arnie, meaning they magnify one another’s limitations rather than working together to enhance their strengths, demonstrating no chemistry, romantic or otherwise, together. Schwarzenegger works better in concert with James Caan as Robert DeGuerin, Kruger’s Marshal mentor turned villain, mole inside the Marshal service who is seeking to peddle these superweapons to so many bad guys, two sides of a coin that the old acting pro handles like clockwork while growing increasingly entertaining as his character becomes exasperated by his protégé’s refusal to just die.

The set-up suggests a mid-90s conspiracy thriller, given how many G-men prove to be on the wrong side, but the screenplay by Tony Puryear and Walon Green eschews it, evinced in how Lee becomes less important as the movie goes along, just there to be in trouble, and essentially falling from view altogether during the climax. That climax involves the secret weapon, an electromagnetic rifle, and it’s amusingly revealing how a movie that would ostensibly call out arms manufacturing mostly just manufactures this arm to goose its own action. Maybe that morally rules “Eraser” out of order but as a dumb action movie, I mostly still enjoyed it, not least for how it expertly paces the downtime and derring-do. True, the effects rendering some of that derring-do appear a bit dated, or perhaps just a little unconvincing, but what they lack in verisimilitude, they make up for conception, which is what matters most, Kruger’s parachuting scene combining a mid-air shootout with a jetliner and an exemplar of Chekov’s Zoo, meaning that once a public zoo is mentioned, it’s only a matter of time until the alligator enclosure gets blown to smithereens, yielding Man v Gator. More than that, though, what “Eraser” has going for it is its main man, Schwarzenegger, cutting the image of a movie star simply in the low-angled shot when his character walks into a room to meet Lee. Like her, when you see this shot, you know you’re in good hands. No CGI gator can compare. 

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