Here’s how you know Eraser is a total guy movie: When you leave the theater, all you want to talk about is the guns. These guns — the movie’s McGuffin, the thing the bad guys will kill for — are serious guns indeed. They come equipped with some x-ray device that scans through thick walls to zero in on their prey; the force of the laser blast will knock you right through the aforementioned thick walls. Guys could watch this all day. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t even have to show up.
He just barely shows up anyway. Not that Arnie doesn’t sweat and bleed as much as usual. It’s just that he usually has some fun with his granite persona (think of his witty work in True Lies), and he doesn’t this time. In Eraser, Arnie plays yet another super-agent — he wipes out the identities of federal witnesses — but it’s as if his own identity had been deleted, too. He’s just an efficient war machine here, a Homeric version of Tom Cruise’s character in Mission Impossible.
Eraser is pure no-frills action, which may not sound bad — Speed did pretty well with just a bus. But Speed (and other great modern action movies) achieved a kind of beautiful idiocy — Zen for frat boys.Eraser is more often just idiotic, with none of the true wildness that can goose a movie like Die Hard past popcorn thrills and into something close to art. The script, credited to Tony Puryear and Walon Green, could have been spat out of a Macintosh on one of those screenwriting software packages that combine different plot points from past hits. Arnie the Eraser has to protect Vanessa Williams, an FBI employee who discovers illegal government deals involving those cool super-guns. It’s the sort of plot you’ve seen so many times before that you forget exactly where you’ve seen it before, though you know it probably worked better then.
The director, Chuck Russell, has an interesting track record that Eraser doesn’t fit into. He did the third Nightmare on Elm Street installment, one of the more imaginative entries in the series; the gross-but-fun remake of The Blob; and the whirligig Jim Carrey vehicle The Mask. Russell is a fantasist, not a man of action, and the set pieces in Eraser are blurry and half-hearted. He’s in his element, though, in the scenes involving the guns — he has those freaky x-ray graphics to conjure with.
Eraser does have a wild card, which isn’t played nearly enough. Robert Pastorelli, best known as Eldin the painter on Murphy Brown, turns up as a former Mafia goombah whom Arnie “erases.” When called upon to return the favor (“Jeez,” he grouses, “I thought you just wanted me to help move a couch or something”), Pastorelli takes part in a scheme involving pizza and Alka-Seltzer. Eraser is worth seeing just for Pastorelli’s expression when he realizes his ruse is working far better than he intended.
If only there were more to it. You’ve seen the ads: Eraser has a nice gag involving a parachute, and Russell does some nasty business with alligators. But most of the movie is neither hot nor cold — just fast and undistinguished. It works so hard to wipe the audience out that it ends up erasing itself.