Monday, June 22, 2015

Full Moon Fever: Eliminators

by Patrick Bromley
What do you get when you cross a scientist, a ninja, a mercenary and a manborg? Eliminators!

There is so much awesomeness inside Empire Pictures' 1986 sci-fi action movie Eliminators that it's a shame the movie isn't more awesome. This is a movie that combines robots, ninjas, gladiators, cavemen and time travel. There is no excuse for it to feel as sluggish as it does. It's entertaining for sure, but probably half as entertaining as it ought to be.

A pilot crashes in South America and is rescued by a mad scientist named Abbott Reeves (Roy Dotrice), who brings him back to life with hardware and turns him into a Manborg. This Manborg (who is really called Manborg for almost the entire movie and is played by Patrick Reynolds) has the ability to travel in time and brings back a Roman centurion shield for his master, which seems like a trivial detail at the time but ends up playing a huge role in the ultimate endgame of the film. Abbott plans to have the Manborg disassembled, but his assistant helps Manborg escape (and is killed for his trouble), telling him to track down a scientist named Nora Hunter (Denise Crosby). Hunter and the Manborg forge a plan to return to South America to stop Reeves, picking up riverboat guide Harry Fontana (Andrew Prine) and Kuji (Conan Lee), a ninja trying to find his father...who happens to be Reeves' dead assistant. The foursome band together to become the ELIMINATORS! I mean, they never call themselves that, but surely that's what the title is referring to, right? Why else is the movie called Eliminators?
Eliminators comes from Charles Band's pre-Full Moon days, back when he was running Empire Pictures and cranking out movies even faster than he would in the '90s. The Empire films usually had bigger budgets and were made with theatrical distribution in mind (as opposed to the DTV market that Full Moon serviced), meaning the movies tend to be bigger and more ambitious, though not necessarily always better. This one has an especially high pedigree, as it is the first full-length feature directed by Peter Manoogian, a regular collaborator of Band who would go on to direct the underrated Enemy Territory and Arena for Empire, as well as Demonic Toys and Seedpeople (among others) for Full Moon. It is written by Paul De Meo and Danny Bilson, the duo responsible for Trancers and who would go on to write Trancers II and The Rocketeer, as well as create and write for the early '90s CBS series The Flash. These are people with tremendous genre bona fides.

With Eliminators, they weren't trying to create just another genre movie -- they were trying to create EVERY genre movie. The results are mixed. Bilson and De Meo's kitchen sink screenplay is a lot of fun and very self aware. They're not winking at the viewer or making fun of the tropes they're using in the movie, but they're definitely conscious of what they're doing; the only reason cavemen end up in Eliminators at any point is because the writers realized they had everything in their movie BUT cavemen and decided to rectify that. This is the stuff in the movie that works, and it comes to life when it most embraces being an insane bouillabaisse of exploitation genres. By the time we're seeing a ninja fighting alongside a manborg, we've either given ourselves completely over to Eliminators or this movie is not made for us. The screenplay allows for all this stuff to co-exist with just enough rationalization that it almost feels organic -- there's none of that obvious "hey, aren't ninjas awesome and isn't this awesome because we have a ninja in here" mentality that sometimes mars the kinds of contemporary work so clearly influenced by movies like Eliminators. I'm looking at you, Kung Fury.
Unfortunately, director Peter Manoogian -- a good filmmaker and one I like -- is too often stepping on the screenplay's toes so that what should be bouncy and crazy and insanely entertaining ends up too sluggish and only "pretty fun." The movie needs a good deal of editing; while it runs only 95 minutes, it should be about 80. There's too much dead space between the good stuff, and I know that (in the grand tradition of most exploitation movies) that's probably due in large part to budget restrictions. There's only enough money for X amount of awesomeness, but a feature film is 2X and needs to be padded out with non-awesome scenes (and that's how we do Full Moon math!). We get a lot of scenes of characters standing around talking to one another, which might have still been ok if the performances were more fun. Denise Crosby -- the future Tasha Yar -- does a fine job and Andrew Prine seems to be having a good time as the rougish, sarcastic Harry Montana, but Patrick Reynolds is pretty much a bore (a Manbore) as the half human/half robot at the center of the movie. I know he's playing a robot and tries to pitch his performance accordingly, but as Peter Weller taught us it's possible to play a cyborg and still do fun, interesting work. Reynolds isn't a drag because he's playing a robot; he's a drag because he's just not that good of an actor here.

Even the action scenes don't come alive as much as we might hope. Maybe it's just Manoogian's inexperience coming through; though he had directed a segment in the Empire anthology The Dungeonmaster (aka Ragewar), this is his first real feature. By the time he made Enemy Territory a year later, he had gotten better at lean, no nonsense action, perhaps learning some valuable lessons during the making of Eliminators. Or maybe it's just working with the special effects that hinders him somewhat. One of the fun things about the movie is that there are a whole lot of practical and optical effects, from Denise Crosby's tiny robot assistant (a kind of cyber-dog clearly inspired by R2-D2 called "S.P.O.T.") to the laser guns and force fields. And because this is an Empire film, there was enough money to work with (I'm sure the filmmakers would disagree with me) to realize the effects in a way that can still look cheap but is satisfying, especially to those of us who like these kinds of movies.
And maybe that's my ultimate disappointment with Eliminators: it's a movie for those of us who like these kinds of movies and it clearly wants to be the MOST of this kind of movie. The fact that it comes up short makes it more disappointing than if everyone had set their sights lower. While it may seem like that's me looking at the glass as half empty, consider this: a movie like Eliminators doesn't need to be a masterpiece, nor does it need to deliver on every single bit of its promise. I don't think any movie could. But it at least needs to be the best possible version of what it sets out to be and it never quite makes it. Does the movie have a lot of cool elements in it? Of course, but cool elements alone do not a great movie make. Is it a fun movie made by people who love this stuff? Yes, and that's ultimately why I enjoy it as much as I do. Love will cover up a lot of shortcomings. Love is what makes my fandom for Empire Pictures and Full Moon possible, as it so often bridges the gap between effort and execution. I love what Eliminators tries to be even as I only like what it ends up being.

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  1. Best. VHS Cover Art. Ever.
    I still want that poster in my house!

  2. I mentioned before that I saw this as a kid in the theater and loved it! Revisiting this a few years ago as an adult I too found it sluggish, hard to get through and not as "fun" as I hoped I had remembered it being, even for the nostalgia. I had no idea that Charles Band was behind this! Nice review Patrick. Another reason I love this site - who else is reviewing Eliminators?!

  3. They should totally do (I mean if Full Moon actually still had budgets to work with, and considerably higher ones even than they once did) a new version of The Eliminators as an Avengers-style team-up of classic Full Moon heroes; The Puppet Master, Doctor Mordrid, The Mandroid, Benjamin Knight, the Dark Angel, and Jack Deth.

    1. Holy shit would I be on board with that movie if they (like you said) had the money to do it right. I'd even contribute to a Kickstarter to get it going.