Thursday, January 20, 2022


Eraser, by Robert Tine
June, 1996  Signet Books

I was always under the impression that Eraser was an unofficial sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s earlier movie Commando (1985). And this was an immediate reaction; I saw Eraser in the theater on its opening night, with the Arnold-obsessed friend I mentioned in my Total Recall review. This guy was so obsessed that, every July 30th (ie Schwarzenegger’s birthday), he’d call people up and tell them, “Happy Arnold Day.” I think Eraser came out around this time, or maybe a little before – all I remember is I’d just graduated from college and was spending the summer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which is where I saw the movie. 

But it seemed clear that Eraser, which is likely considered a lesser movie in Schwarzenegger’s canon now, was at least somewhat of a tribute to Commando. It had the same sort of “comedy meets action” vibe, with Schwarzenegger playing a stone-cold badass who, despite his stone-cold badassery, had a gift for goofy one-liners. Also, Schwarzenegger played a “John” in both films: John Matrix in Commando and John Krueger in Eraser. Both films featured a black lead actress: Rae Dawn Chong in Commando and Vanessa Williams in Eraser. Schwarzenegger jumped out of an airplane in both films: before takeoff in Commando and before landing in Eraser. There was also a total callout to Commando in Eraser, with Schwarzenegger at one point wearing a jacket with “Let’s party!” written on it, this being one of his lines at the climax of Commando

What really set my friend and I to theorizing was that the end credits didn’t bill Schwarzenegger as having played “John Krueger;” instead, he was credited merely as “Eraser.” This gave the impression that Krueger wasn’t even the guy’s real name. And most importantly, “Eraser’s” job was creating new identities for people. It didn’t require a huge leap in deduction to figure that John Matrix could’ve changed his own name to John Krueger. Of course, all this is pointless, as the two films are clearly unrelated, but it was fun to think of Eraser as the Commando sequel we never got. But then, many years later I managed to get a copy of the never-produced Commando II script, dated February 1989 and written by Steven E. de Souza with revisions by Frank Darabont, and in it John Matrix goes up against a nefarious defense contractor…so similar to the plot of Eraser that I wondered if this was yet another connection between the two films. 

I recall at the time that I thought Eraser was fine, if fairly generic; it was clear even then that there was a huge difference between Schwarzenegger’s 80s films and his ‘90s films. His star power was still sufficient enough to make Eraser a hit, and it might’ve been his last non-franchise hit, I’m not sure. It was certainly better than the movies he made over the next few years, but I only saw it that one time in the theater. Then about a decade ago I got it on Blu Ray, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Still thought it was a bit generic, though, with none of the violence of those ‘80s movies and more of an attempt at being a “real” movie, with James Caan and James Coburn in supporting roles. Also, you knew for sure it was the ‘90s because suddenly Schwarzenegger was pecking away on a computer keyboard. And using a handgun – notice that in the ‘80s the action stars used machine guns, but they reverted to handguns in the ‘90s. Just kinder, gentler times overall. 

Well anyway, this tie-in novel courtesy prolific novelization author Robert Tine hews very closely to the film itself. And despite being 233 pages it’s a quick read; you could probably read it in the time it would take to watch the movie itself. It’s got some seriously big print, and looks very much like the average Gold Eagle paperback of the day. Tine also drops in the occasional weaponry detail, which gives it even more of a Gold Eagle vibe. There are no major differences from the film – this isn’t a Rambo III type novelization, that’s for sure – or at least none that jumped out at me. About the most I noticed was a bit more backstory for Krueger, who reveals that he got into witness protection years ago because a woman he knew was raped and he pushed her to testify, and she ended up getting killed because no one protected her. But then, this dialog might be in the film too, I can’t remember. 

Tine’s novel somewhat aids my “Commando sequel” theory: Krueger is referred to as “Eraser” in the narrative, same as Schwarzenegger was in the credits. He’s only called “Krueger” once or twice, and his WITSEC colleague Robert Deguerin (James Caan) refers to him as “John.” But then Deguerin himself is referred to as “Samaritan” in the novel. They are all US Marshals, part of an “elite Shadow Operation” by the name of WITSEC, and these are their code names. It lends the story more of a comic book vibe than the film actually had. This is somewhat present in the opening action scene, which sees Eraser, masked head to toe in black like a ninja, taking out several mobsters as they’re about to torture-kill an informant named Johnny C. This was another part my Arnold-obsessed friend and I got a kick out of, as Schwarzenegger first appears while hiding behind an opened refrigerator door. My “eccentric” friend liked to do the exact same thing; he was fond of “sneak attacking” people, usually appearing out of the shadows to throw a kick at your head or whatever. Hiding behind an opened fridge door was one of his favorites, and there his friggin’ hero was doing the very same thing on the big screen! 

This opening eventually paves the way for the main plot, which has Eraser taking on a defense contractor which is planning to sell off its high-tech experimental weaponry to the highest bidder. Ultimately the Russian mafia is involved, but this isn’t really elaborated on. Eraser’s main enemies are his fellow agents, rogue ones from WITSEC and the CIA. One of the problems with Eraser is that Samaritan is played by James Caan, and thus the producers give him a bit more personality and memorable lines. This movie’s over 25 years old and I’m sure the majority of you have seen it, so no spoiler alert but Samaritan turns out to be the bad guy. The thing is, because the producers gave him a personality he lacks the batshit craziness of previous villains in Schwarzenegger films – like the guy in Commando, or even Richter in Total Recall. Guys you spend the entire movie waiting to see get killed. 

And honestly, if you have seen the movie, you’re not going to get much new stuff out of Tine’s tie-in, or perhaps we should refer to it as a Tine-in? No, that would be stupid. But really, the book is almost a straight take on what’s seen in the film, and for the most part Tine doesn’t even add much inner stuff for the characters, to give perspective or depth. This actually could’ve helped the book in a major way. For example, the plot concerns Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), an executive at defense contractor Cyrex, who wants to turn in evidence on some illegal and traitorous actions involving newly-developed rail gun technology. While Tine displays some of Lee’s concerns and fears early in the novel, in later action scenes he skips all that and just tells us what she’s doing. Like the big action scene in the zoo; it’s all Lee aiming guns and firing, or even later in the book bashing some guy in the head and escaping, and it all just happens, with no internal turmoil from Lee, someone entirely new to this world of violence, as she prepares herself to attack someone. 

Otherwise the action follows almost identically to the film. The airplane sequence also plays out the same, with Eraser drugged by Samaritan and then managing to jump out of the plane after he wakes up. I recall the part where he parachuted into the auto junkard – asking the kids “Where is this?” and the kids replying “Earth – welcome!” – got a big laugh in the theater, probably the biggest laugh of the movie. But then, Schwarzenegger’s one-liners suffered too in the ‘90s; his “You’re luggage!” to a CGI-rendered alligator he shoots at the zoo was lame even then. Actually Caan is the one who gets the most comedic lines, his Samaritan almost having a grand old time of it as he goes bad. Also the violence has been toned down; Tine’s novelization might be more violent than the film, with occasional mentions of heads being blown off. I also appreciated his description of how the rail guns worked, in particular the “eerie glow” of the “X-ray scope” on the guns. 

Toward the climax Eraser and Lee infiltrate the Cyrex HQ, a scene which plays as much on comedy as action, featuring as it does Johnny C feigning a heart attack in what could almost be a skit from a comedy movie. From there we get into the action, with Eraser again blasting away with a sidearm as Samaritan and the CIA goons try to hunt him down. But it’s so far removed from the action spectacles of the ‘80s, with those damn computers once again central to the action as Lee hurriedly types away on a keyboard. I seem to recall the Commando II script also featured John Matrix infiltrating the high-tech HQ of a defense contractor (it’s been several years since I read it); Frank Darabont, who revised that unproduced script, also did some uncredited rewrites on Eraser, so this entire sequence could be yet another tangent in the “unofficial Commando sequel” theory. 

One area in which Tine’s novelization veers from the movie is the ending. I remember reading a magazine article years and years ago where Vanessa Williams stated that she and Schwarzenegger had originally kissed at the end of Eraser, but this “romantic” ending was changed because it “didn’t work.” Tine actually has that ending here in the novel. We see Eraser and Lee at an airport, deciding on where to go. He returns her St. George necklace, which he took from her earlier in the book as part of her “identity erasing.” The idea being that he is now her protector. They kiss and that’s that. I can’t even remember how the actual movie ended right now. Maybe I should get the Blu Ray out and watch it again. Really though, Tine’s novelization just reinforced the idea that Eraser is a bit generic, like one level above a direct-to-video release. Which makes it all the more sad that it was one of Schwarzenegger’s better ‘90s movies!


Matthew said...

Fan theories can be fun. The most famous one is the theory that Nero Wolfe is Sherlock Holmes's son. This was expanded upon by SF writer Philip Jose Farmer who theorized that most of the heroes of Victorian and Pulp era fiction where related to each other.

Johny Malone said...

Matrix tells her daughter about his childhood in Germany (supposedly the East). Krueger sounds like a German surname. Perhaps it was the real last name of Matrix (or vice versa). Another contribution to the supposed sequel.
There is a case of a sequel that was not a sequel but kept the main character: Avenging Force (Sam Firstenberg, 1986), where Matt Hunter reappears, Chuck Norris's character in Invasion U.S.A.

Grant said...

I can't be the only one who laughs at all those happy endings where someone's prevented from selling their new weapon to the "wrong people," meaning anyone but the Pentagon!