Film: Mission: frankly unoriginal

The Critics

"Girly Men" was, as memory serves, the serenely contemptuous epithet coined by Arnold Schwarzenegger for left- leaning members of the Democratic Party in the United States. Oddly enough, however, Arnie has been tending ever more conspicuously towards the girly side himself in recent years: playing the caring family man (True Lies), the soft-centred comic butt (Kindergarten Cop) and even, in Junior, letting himself get knocked up. Well, forget all that touchy-feely range-broadening nonsense. In Eraser (18), the testosterone has kicked back in with a vengeance. If you've been pining for an Arnie who will stomp, stab, shoot, gouge, maim, garrotte and biff without letting the slightest tinge of emotion restructure his facial granite, this could be the flick for you.

Indeed, our man has reverted so much to Terminator-era killer-machine type that even his accent, which had been shaping up into very plausible first-generation American, seems to have slid dramatically back down the career ladder to his old roots in Graz. "All you hef to do is bull the drigger," he booms to a young lady when instructing her in the use of firearms; later, when he anxiously enquires, "Are you het?" he's not asking about sexual preferences but whether she has just taken a bullet.

And while the part he plays in Eraser - a dangerous loner marshal in the federal witness protection programme - is nominally human rather than cyborg, it's hard to register the difference. (He's supposedly called an "eraser" because his job involves wiping out all trace of a witness's previous identity before relocating them, but this should fool no one, particularly as the film often uses "erased" in the same brutally jocular way his best star vehicle used the word "terminated".) Any other movie in which the hero suffered a nail through the hand, a spike through the thigh and a slug in the shoulder might well smack of the sado-masochistic, but Arnie's hypertrophied frame is so far removed from mere human biology that the sight of such damage is about as kinky or disturbing as a demolition derby.

The film is, by the way, rubbish. More importantly, it's lazy, formulaic rubbish, and suffers from the bad timing of being strikingly similar to Mission: Impossible, right down to the set-piece sequence of a raid on a supposedly impenetrable computer HQ, staged by the director Charles Russell (The Mask, etc) without a fraction of De Palma's elan. Its McGuffin is a supergun with X-ray sights that can see through buildings and into viscera, able to fire aluminium shells at, quote, "almost the speed of light". (Anyone setting up a Campaign for Real Physics in Movies?) In practical terms, this seems to mean that they leave a white spiral trail in the air behind them and can hurl human targets backwards for yards: picturesque enough but a trifle overdone.

A sneaky arms company is planning to put this gadget on the market for terrorists, but a bold computer operator (the popular singer Vanessa Williams, whose remarkable lower facial development rivals Emmanuelle Beart's) has rumbled the scheme and informed the FBI. Arnie has the job of protecting her against the baddies, a more complicated task than usual since we find out - again as in Mission: Impossible, but a lot sooner - that his own department is full of rotten apples, none more over-ripe than his sometime mentor James Caan (one of his least charismatic performances).

Detailing the scrapes into which this assignment leads our hero would be even more wearisome than watching them, although the bits you are meant to walk out of the cinema raving about involve Arnie throwing himself out of a jet without a parachute and Arnie tangling with an alligator. This latter tussle produces his best line: "You're luggage," he grunts, dispatching the beast to reptile heaven. Yes, that's the best line. The most disappointing thing about Eraser is that there isn't a single Arnie zinger to go around muttering under your breath for the next two months. He should either hire a new gag-writer or think about having himself fitted for a new frock.

Set in a small campus town in Iowa, The Last Supper (15) is a smart, cruel little joke about a household of fairly insufferable bien-pensant graduate students - girly men and a couple of girly women - who decide to stop yakking about making the world a better place and do something concrete for a change: viz invite local bigots and reactionaries to Sunday dinner and, if they prove sufficiently obnoxious, poison them and bury them in the back yard under the tomatoes. Arsenic and old cant, so to speak.

Having tasted blood, they want more, and the killings become increasingly gratuitous as the tomatoes wax plumper. (The killers also start to crack up as their appetites grow stranger, rather like the students in Donna Tartt's novel The Secret History.) This first feature by Stacy Title doesn't have all the sting it might - we're held too distant from it by the sketchy, irritating characterisations - but it's an enjoyably tart mixture of traditional yarning and modern attitudinising, with a small gallery of juicy cameos, of which the most satisfying is Bill Paxton's. He plays a tightly wrapped former serviceman whose chance arrival at the house one night precipitates the chain of murders. This man's view of the world is almost satanically evil, but he has enough nasty, raw perception to lure you into sharing his contempt for his hosts: what a rattling film it might have been if he'd only stayed around for a while.

There are so many fresh and delightful and, really, almost poetic touches in Mira Nair's romantic comedy The Perez Family (15) that it feels mean- spirited to complain that it all goes on a bit and can be hopelessly corny. But it does, and it can. The unpromising occasion for its plot is Castro's forcible prison expulsions of 1980 - the same "toilet flushing" depicted in De Palma's Scarface. Finally liberated from years of torture and despair, Juan Paul Perez (Alfred Molina) arrives in Florida in the hope of reunion with the wife he has not seen for 20 years (Anjelica Huston; you'll notice how echt Cuban the casting is). But life and officialdom tangle him up, and he falls into a quasi-marriage in the refugee camp with a jolly nice former prostitute (Marisa Tomei, who really acts very nicely when she manages to stop swivelling her hips).

Objectively this is quite a harsh story, but Nair gives it such an incongruously sunny, good-natured mood that its few moments of grit come as a relief. Molina, for example, looks so powerfully Christ-like in his beard and tattered prison fatigues as the film opens - oddly similar, given the film's attitude to Castro's goon squads, to that iconic photograph of the dead Che Guevara which John Berger once compared to a Mantegna - that when he is spruced-up into a presentable romantic lead a lot of the pressure goes out of his character. And Nair's eye for quietly magical sights - a child pegged up to dry on a line, a sassy street kid suddenly turned meek and attired in a surplice - doesn't seem to be matched by her ear. How else could a line such as Tomei's barbaric yawp "I am like Kooba - used by many, conquered by none" have survived in the final edit?

Original Gangstas (18), a slight return to the glory days of the Blaxploitation picture, opens fairly bracingly, with a rapid mini-lecture on the economic decline of Gary, Indiana, after US Steel laid off 70 per cent of its work- force, leaving them few alternatives between destitution and crime; modulates into an unusually old-fashioned moral tale about how the more mature locals, led by a bunch of thick- waisted guys (veteran Blaxploitation stars including Mr John Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree) who used to be gang members in the Seventies, fight back against the adolescent psychopaths who now hold its streets; and dissolves into an endless tedium of amateurish acting and shoddily staged action. Larry Cohen directs as though his long CV had been mysteriously erased.

Have your children been unbearable recently? Take them to see The Secret Agent's Club (PG), a Hulk Hogan vehicle about spies and things (actually the plot is quite similar to Eraser). Co-starring a bunch of 12-year olds, it has all the sly wit and professional competence of a film made by seven- year-olds. If they persist in their naughtiness, make them watch it again. The courts can't do anything.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

ARTS IN TODAY'S SUNDAY REVIEW

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