In 1996 there were few people in Hollywood whose movies I looked more forward to than Arnold Schwarzenegger. I preferred Al Pacino as an actor and if John McTiernan, James Cameron or Paul Verhoeven were behind the camera, I was there opening day. Back then Dr. Strangelove and 12 Angry Men were still two of my favorite movies, but as a lad in his early twenties, I was the ultimate sucker for bullets, explosions and witty one-liners as bad guys met their demise.
Written by: The Donor
Eraser (R) 115 min. Directed by: Chuck Russell, Written by: Tony Puryear, Walon Green, Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Vanessa Williams, James Coburn, Robert Pastorelli, James Cromwell, Original Music by: Alan Silvestri, Cinematography by: Adam Greenberg
For a full decade, Arnold had ruled the action universe. Commando, Raw Deal, Predator, Red Heat, Total Recall, Terminator 2, Last Action Hero and True Lies were movies that I watched endlessly. The 80s stuff I watched weekly on cable, the 90s stuff on VHS tapes that were worn out. Not only did every new Arnold movie up the action ante, but most of them ushered in a whole new level of jaw dropping technology.
For old guys like me who saw Predator, Total Recall and Terminator 2 when they premiered in the theater, it’s impossible to forget the moment we first saw the cloaking effect of the universe’s greatest hunter, the disguise opening up layer by layer around Quaid’s head or the tiled floor rising up to reveal itself as the T-1000. These were all special effects jaw droppers, the kind of OMFG moments we rarely see in cinema these days because CGI has become the norm.
The internet was still a novelty back in the mid-90s. Most people didn’t have home access and even if you did there really wasn’t a lot to see. There were still corporations who hadn’t even bothered to register their domain name yet and most movie news came courtesy of newsgroups as the deluge of rumor sites was still a couple years off. So the best place for upcoming movie news was still print rags like Entertainment Weekly and Variety.
I walked into a magazine shop one magnificent spring afternoon and the cover of the latest EW caught my eye. It announced the summer movie lineup. Being the movie fiend that I am and always anticipating the summer movie season above all others (believe it or not there was a time when summer releases were some of the year’s best), I snatched up the issue and read the entry for every upcoming movie. It was the most potent lineup for a summer schedule I had ever seen.
Twister promised to blow our socks off with its revolutionary effects, Mission: Impossible looked to be a return to form for DePalma and a white knuckle roller coaster ride, Dragonheart was the type of fantasy epic we’d been waiting for in well over a decade, The Rock would be the pure action bravado spectacle we’d come to expect from Bruckheimer and Simpson and then there was this little enigmatic movie about an alien invasion that was being hyped as a modern day Star Wars but that we’d heard little about and seen nothing of.
Mixed in with all these summer extravaganzas was the new Schwarzenegger film. Up until then I’d heard very little about it, but the EW article assured me it was going to be edge of your seat action with Arnold being in top form. So I made a mental note. Eraser. June 21st.
Like a lot of high profile releases back then, I would get truly excited before heading out to the theater. Hell, there were times I was even known to have a sleepless night in anticipation of what I was about to see. When I arrived at the theater with my brother and best friend, I was so giddy I needed a straight jacket to sit still in my seat.
I had lofty expectations for Eraser and by the time the opening scene was done, I knew it was going to meet every one of them and then some. Like most action movies, there is nothing intricate about the plot. It may not be entirely predictable, but it’s fairly by the book. It’s in the set pieces and inventive weaponry where Eraser stands out from just about any action movie that has come out since.
The first set piece is the assault on Lee Cullen’s house who is under the federal protection of John Kruger. The assailants are equipped with railguns, high tech weapons that fire hypervelocity ammunition. The guns are also equipped with an “X-ray” scope that allows them to see through walls and zero in on the target’s beating heart. It’s death at the speed of light.
We’d seen everything from spears to bullets to frickin’ laser beams in cinema before, so the challenge was coming up with an idea we’d already seen, but new. Yes, the railgun fires projectiles, but it spits them out with a coiled trail of smoke and like the weapon of a Jedi, the bullets will cut through anything. Their one limitation? Lead lined refrigerators, nemesis to Superman, godsend to Indiana Jones. When Kruger and Cullen take refuge in a Kenmore, our villains are forced to use alternative means. Enter the fragmentation grenade, only this one is full of nails and when it goes off it sprays the room with a lethal shower of galvanized steel.
Purely from a weapons standpoint, this scene had the coolest technology since Predator, but not since the lightsaber did I want to get my hands on a fictional weapon like I did the railgun. And right now the fragmentation grenade would come in handy if I could toss one into the BP boardroom.
There’s a wonderful scene at the zoo where some CGI alligators (they were cutting edge at the time) rip apart some more bad guys and Kruger turns one of them into luggage, but the absolute highlight of the film is the jet sequence. This is the type of scene you put on to impress friends with your sound system and drool over because it looks just as fabulous today as it did the day it was released.
After having been drugged by Deguerin, a fellow U.S. Marshall turned bad and played with devilish aplomb by James Caan, Kruger wakes up on a private jet headed to his doom. Kruger manages to free himself and stabs Deguerin in the arm with a knife concealed in his belt. This causes Deguerin to utter the line, “I can’t believe you nailed me with this cheap piece of mail-order s**t!” which I tend to quote daily as I encounter things that break on me or whenever my computer gives me trouble.
Being unarmed and trapped in a jet at 30,000 feet doesn’t give Kruger many options, but he only needs one. He opens the door, rips out a chair and tosses it into one of the rear engines. Instant mechanical failure. Under heavy fire from Deguerin he’s forced to toss a parachute out the door and leap out after it. After catching up with the parachute and deploying it, Kruger’s troubles continue as Deguerin has ordered the pilot to turn the jet around and turn Kruger into a fly on the windshield.
What makes this scene so impressive aren’t the non-stop thrills that leave us breathless, but that it combines green screen effects with actual stunt work and that it still looks damn near flawless. It’s a perfect action sequence.
The final set piece, an all out assault by Kruger and Italian teamsters on a dockyard to prevent the sale of a shipment to railguns to nefarious Russians is fantastic, but it doesn’t reach the dizzying highs of the jet set piece. We’re treated to Kruger double fisting railguns and sending those Commie bastards to hell without even breaking a sweat.
Eraser signaled the great decline of Arnold’s acting career. For the next several years we were given such unfortunate disasters as Jingle All the Way, Batman and Robin, End of Days and Collateral Damage. The 6th Day managed to entertain, but even that failed to give us any moments that were memorable after a couple days. It wasn’t until T3 that Arnold returned with a movie that is as good as any others in his storied career.
Eraser is a great movie that was unfortunately eclipsed by the rest of the summer competition. Had it come out at any other time, or at least not sandwiched between Twister and Independence Day, the two highest grossing movies of the year, it would probably be remembered as one of Schwarzenegger’s best. If it’s been a while since you’ve seen it, do yourself a favor and get reacquainted. Afterward you’ll feel like turning yourself in to the police for criminally overlooking a superb action film.