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If his new turkey Eraser has any effect on Conan the box-office Barbarian's future per-picture asking price, perhaps Maria Shriver's square-jawed, stogie-toking hubby should consider trading in his Hummer for a Hyundai. Rarely does one get a better chance to witness how the "too many chefs spoil the broth" axiom applies to screenwriting than with Arnold Schwarzenegger's hopelessly muddled new action vehicle. According to a recent article in Entertainment Weekly, "more than half a dozen scribes took a whack at the script, making it a textbook example of Hollywood's writing-by-committee practice." The screenplay went through ten -- count 'em, ten -- ewrites. Not surprisingly, the film fails to establish a consistent tone, and it jumps wildly from suspense to action to lowbrow comedy. Every character seems to have been written by a different hand, and the two central figures -- Arnold's incorruptible U.S. marshal and Vanessa Williams's government witness -- are drawn so haphazardly that they never get a chance to connect with the audience.

It doesn't help matters that the big man has regressed as an actor, returning to his dopey, Raw Deal-era facial expressions and awkward timing. The patented Schwarzenegger swagger and refreshing willingness to parody his own larger-than-life screen persona are nowhere to be found. This time out Arnold looks lost. He never finds a handle on his character, a federal lawman who apparently possesses a license to kill that would provoke jealousy in James Bond. All we know about the guy is that he is good at his job A safeguarding high-risk members of the federal witness protection program. The slapdash script doesn't offer any illumination in this regard; not one of those many writers figured out a way to demonstrate the special skills that qualify Schwarzenegger's John Kruger as particularly proficient. The first time we see him in action his success owes more to his foes' ineptitude than to his own resourcefulness. We know he's the best in the witness protection business only because his boss and mentor (James Caan making the wisecracking most of a thankless role) continually reminds us of that fact. "Show, don't tell" is the first rule of screenwriting. Eraser's six-pack of hacks fails to follow even that most basic of tenets.

Not only does the script neglect to offer up any particularly compelling proof of Kruger's competence, but it portrays him as a guy who gets lucky with alarming frequency. Monsoons of bullets rain down and fail to hit him, but every shot he fires finds its mark. When Kruger needs a parachute in order to escape a streaking jet from whose blown-out emergency exit he dangles, there just happens to be one -- helpfully labeled "emergency parachute" -- within reach. The illustrious authors also cleverly expose the film's villains within the first fifteen minutes or so, thereby forgoing the opportunity to build any suspense. Of course, even though we know the score from the beginning, Kruger takes considerably longer to work it all out for himself. For a guy who is supposedly tops in his field, he seems a little slow on the uptake. Stupid, even. You wonder if Vanessa Williams's Lee Cullen, the whistle-blowing protectee who works for a corrupt defense contractor, wouldn't be better off taking her chances going it alone.

Director Charles Russell (The Mask) squeezes cheap thrills out of one or two action sequences -- notably the above-mentioned airplane escape -- but stages others so inexpertly that Kruger looks sluggish and uncoordinated. You'd think twice about trusting this federal agent with your laundry, let alone your life. Russell offers nothing here that even approaches The Mask's wildly inventive special effects. In fact, Eraser assembles only a shopworn series of action-movie standbys and hand-me-downs. Such was never the case with Arnold's runaway hits Total Recall, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and True Lies. The action sequences were fresh, the special effects cutting-edge. Maybe someone should advise Schwarzenegger to accept only projects with titles beginning with the letter T.

If you're one of the 25 million or so moviegoers who have seen this summer's first action megahit, Mission: Impossible, expect to experience a little dej… vu when viewing Eraser. The underachieving Schwarzenegger flick includes an entire subplot that could have been lifted directly out of M:I. See if these story elements sound familiar: The good guys possess a purloined computer disk containing ultrasensitive files; the bad guys will stop at nothing to get it. But there's a traitor in the upper ranks of the noble protagonist's agency; the intrepid warrior finds himself wrongly accused of treason and hunted like a renegade by his own government. In order to outwit the true scoundrels and clear his name, the leading man must defy seemingly insurmountable odds and break into a top-security, constantly monitored mainframe computer A exactly the same challenge tackled by Tom Cruise and company in one of Mission: Impossible's biggest scenes. During the course of collating and binding Eraser's numerous screenplay revisions, somebody must have accidentally tucked in a few pages from the Mission: Impossible blueprint.

Where Eraser isn't derivative, it's insultingly nitwitted. The screenwriters really strain credulity during a shootout in a zoo: Kruger, cornered and down to his last round of ammo, escapes by firing into and bursting a huge glass-walled tank housing several dinosaur-size crocodiles, which conveniently chow down on the marshal's stalkers. If the film has a saving grace, it's the comic presence of Robert Pastorelli, best known for his recurring role as Eldin the housepainter on the long-running TV series Murphy Brown. Pastorelli steals the movie as Johnny C., a Mafioso-turned-government-snitch who owes a debt of gratitude to Kruger and repays it by enlisting some old wise-guy cronies to act as a sort of Three Stooges-meet-the-gang-that-couldn't-shoot-straight cavalry. Like the Joe Pesci character in Lethal Weapon 2, Johnny C. provides instant comic relief. He's extraneous, and the movie goes from action-suspense to cartoonish buffoonery with his arrival, but by the time Kruger calls for Johnny C.'s assistance, you're grateful for the laughs. The "serious" plot has unraveled way past the point of no return.


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