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''Eraser'' and ''Commando''

”Eraser” and ”Commando” — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s new video is a camouflaged version of one he made 11 years earlier

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”Eraser” and ”Commando”

Despite the high tech that courses through his movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been his own greatest special effect: His success morphs Horatio Alger’s self-made man with Charles Atlas’ self-made he-man. But while Schwarzenegger now stands as the last embodiment of Reagan-era machismo, his movies remain hit-or-miss affairs. ”Ahnuld” on screen is still a charismatic but plastic action doll who needs a good script and a strong director to make his joints actually seem bendable. A Schwarzenegger film can be as inspired as James Cameron’s 1984 The Terminator. Or it can be an arrant retread like The Mask director Charles Russell’s Eraser.

Since Schwarzenegger’s latest bone crusher got somewhat lost in the summer shuffle, could he be starting to fall from favor with audiences? Probably not. More likely, it’s that Eraser is a throwback to the string of simplistic grunt-‘n’-shoot films he made before 1988’s Twins widened his appeal beyond the male action-video crowd. In fact, it bears an uncanny resemblance to Commando, and watching the two films together reveals how Schwarzenegger has grown as a film personality — and how little he’s changed.

Commando came out after The Terminator was released in theaters but before that dark, exceptionally well-crafted film’s success on video and pay cable improved the star’s choice of roles. It’s startling now to see Schwarzenegger in what is, in essence, a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie. As John Matrix, a former Special Forces commando (now living under an alias) who is blackmailed into participating in an assassination plot against a benevolent South American leader, Arnold metes out justice like a simpleminded golem. He repeats his big catchphrases from The Terminator — ”Ah’ll be beck” and ”F — k you, a — hole” — but without the subterranean glimmer of wit that made those lines so rich in the Cameron film. Here, it’s just testosterone talking.

Worse, Commando attempts to make Arnold over into a loving father figure: It gives him a young daughter (Alyssa Milano of Who’s the Boss?) and lets the two frolic with laughably dewy innocence under the opening credits. But Commando gets some things right. In his pursuit of the bad guys, Matrix picks up a female sidekick (Rae Dawn Chong), and her commonsense wisecracks sound a needed note of irony. Wisely, the movie holds off any notion of a romance between these two until the very last shot; it was clear even in 1985 that emotional involvement goes against the Rules of Arnold.

Eraser‘s plot partially reverses Commando‘s. Instead of playing a character whose identity has been changed, Schwarzenegger is John Kruger, a federal marshal who’s the biggest and baddest cog in the Witness Protection Program. As in the earlier movie, though, he jumps out of a plane without a parachute and (very) obliquely romances another light-skinned black woman: This time, it’s Vanessa Williams as an employee at a weapons firm whose life becomes endangered when she stumbles across a government-arms-sale boondoggle.

At 49, Schwarzenegger looks leaner, whippier, than ever. It’s Eraser‘s script and direction that are flabby. The monstrous alligators Kruger unleashes on the villains in one scene are patently fake ILM concoctions, and when he shoots one in the mouth, the best he can come up with is ”You’re luggage.” That this grade school one-liner was widely quoted as an example of high Schwarzeneggerian bonhomie says less about the quality of the script than it does about the Pavlovian tendencies of movie critics.

Everything about Eraser feels secondhand, from the let’s-retrieve-the-data-from-the-vault scene (Mission: Impossible beat it to the punch) to the dippy lowbrow ending in which Kruger takes care of the bad guys — one of whom is the undersecretary of defense — by stranding them on a railroad track as the express comes honking through. Eraser puts Schwarzenegger back in his mid-’80s palookaville with a literal vengeance. It’s as if his post-Twins career itself had been erased. Eraser: C+ Commando: C-