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D: Charles Russell / 115m

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, James Caan, Vanessa Williams, James Coburn, Robert Pastorelli, James Cromwell, Danny Nucci, Andy Romano, Nick Chinlund

John Kruger (Schwarzenegger) is a US Marshal who works for the Witness Protection programme; he “erases” people’s identities, sets them up in their new lives, and then makes sure they remain safe.  Lee Cullen (Williams) is an employee of the Cyrez Corporation, a weapons manufacturer that she suspects is selling arms to foreign terrorists.  She gains evidence of this as part of an FBI undercover operation, but the plan goes wrong and Cyrez learns of Lee’s involvement.  When killers are sent to her home, it’s Kruger who saves her.

Setting her up in a safe house until she can testify at an upcoming hearing into Cyrez’s business affairs, Kruger is approached by fellow Marshal Robert Deguerin (Caan) who tells him that witnesses in the programme are being killed; Deguerin wants his help in finding the mole who’s leaking the names.  They travel to one of Deguerin’s witnesses but unbeknownst to Kruger it’s a set up: Deguerin is the mole and he’s using the trip as a way of bringing Lee out into the open (he’s also working for Cyrez).  Kruger alerts Lee and she leaves the safe house, having previously agreed to meet Kruger at the New York Zoo.  Escaping Deguerin’s clutches, Kruger meets up with Lee and together they manage to evade Deguerin and his team.

With the information that will expose Cyrez copied to a disc, the only way Kruger and Lee can get a step ahead of everyone else is to learn what’s on the disc, but it’s heavily encrypted and the only way they can read it is to break into Cyrez’ headquarters and use one of the computer terminals.  Aided by one of Kruger’s witnesses, Johnny Casteleone (Pastorelli), they break in and discover that an arms shipment is being loaded onto a ship at the Baltimore docks that night.  They’re discovered, and as they try to escape, Lee is captured by Deguerin.  With Johnny’s help, it’s down to Kruger to stop the shipment and save Lee in the process.

Eraser - scene

One of Arnie’s later action forays, Eraser still looks good for the most part, even if it does have that Eighties vibe that is looked upon nostalgically at the moment (and which isn’t bad for a movie made in 1996).  Looking back at the movie after nearly twenty years it does have its faults – a complete disregard for logic or the laws of physics to name but two – but it also plays it seriously (Arnie’s one liners aside), letting the absurdity of the whole situation unfold with grim determination, as if by doing so the audience won’t dissolve into tears of laughter at every risible plot development (case in point: when Kruger and Lee break into Cyrez, we’re told they can only access the disk from one secured room… except they do it from an office terminal instead… which hasn’t occurred to anyone at Cyrez).  It’s this decision to play it straight that in the end allows the movie to hold up as well as it does.

Schwarzenegger glares a lot as befits a character who trusts no one (until he needs their help – so much for an elite operative who always works alone), and he strides through the movie like the enduring colossus he’s made out to be, shrugging off injury at every turn and allowing nothing to stand in his way.  It’s a commanding performance, the kind that subsequent action stars are still trying to emulate, and he carries it off with confidence and brash fearlessness.  Kruger is a throwback to the type of character Schwarzenegger played in the Eighties – Ben Richards in The Running Man (1987), Ivan Danko in Red Heat (1988) – taciturn, pitiless and single-minded.  It’s the kind of role that’s well-suited to Schwarzenegger’s abilities: short on dialogue, long on shooting people and blowing things up (though it is fun to hear him say “improvisation”, an unexpected gift from the screenwriters).

With the likes of Caan, Coburn and Cromwell providing equally serious-minded support, Eraser benefits enormously from their involvement, though even they have trouble when called upon to utter such glorious lines of dialogue as “We’re way beyond bullshit here” (quite ironic, really) and “Gentlemen, keep your eyes open and your assholes puckered”.  Caan plays Deguerin as a creature of circumstance, an opportunist who doesn’t care who he steps on or kills to get his cut, while Coburn plays the head of the Witness Protection programme as someone who can’t quite believe what’s going on (like the audience).  As Lee, Williams plays her part with brio and wide-eyed disbelief at the corruption going on around her.  She’s the viewer’s connection to the movie, their way in amidst all the mayhem.  She holds her own amongst all the testosterone on display, and is resourceful enough to fend for herself when necessary, making a welcome change from other damsels in distress at the time.

But this being an action movie first and foremost, it stands or falls on its action sequences, and at least here the movie succeeds without need for any further criticism.  There may be more bullets fired than in a small African war, and a higher body count than in same, but each sequence is choreographed to good effect, and Schwarzenegger displays his customary physical dominance in close quarter fighting.  There are plenty of explosions, some impressive stunt work in the final harbour battle, and a sense that not only is bigger better, but that it’s damn well imperative.  Russell orchestrates the various set pieces with a keen eye for casual brutality, and is ably supported by Adam Greenberg’s roving camerawork and Alan Silvestri’s propulsive score.

Rating: 7/10 – with its over-the-top violence bolted onto a script with more holes in it than a string vest, Eraser races along to its explosion-heavy finale with scant regard for the terrible plot it’s trying to outrun; but thanks to some committed performances and Arnie doing exactly what he does best, this is one action movie that – somehow – retains a sense of fun that gives it a much needed boost.