“What is this, anyway, some kind of comic book? We got robots, we got cavemen, we got kung fu.”
Some kind of comic book indeed. The Eliminators is a great example of why the 1980s was such a fun decade for movies. You could head into your local multiplex and find oddball craziness like this right alongside big-budget blockbusters. The whole thing plays like a 12 year old boy’s wish-list for a movie; cyborg heroes who are part tank, hot babe scientists, time travel, centurions, flying robots, cavemen, ninjas, pirates, butch lesbian river boat captains.
This is an ‘everything and the kitchen sink’ kind of movie, and it’s also one of the only times that method worked for Albert and Charles’ Band’s Empire Pictures. Next to Trancers, Re-Animator and Zone Troopers, this is the Bands’ most entertaining movie. It’s schlock, but it’s schlock with a purpose and a sense of humor, and—shocker—some relatively decent writing.
Eliminators has clearly been made on the cheap, with the best cast of actors that time and reputation would allow. The script cribs from nearly every popular franchise of the time and mixes it all up in a pot and then pours it down your throat at high velocity so you can’t linger too long on the ingredients. The action scenes surely looked better on paper or in storyboards. The Eliminators is what it is, but only a cinema churl would argue that it isn’t a good time.
The story is clearly inspired by pulp-age comic books and makes just about as much sense. Crazy scientist Abbot Reeves (Roy Dotrice) has been toying with time travel experiments somewhere in the Mexican jungle. He’s also created the Mandroid (Patrick Reynolds); part-man, part-machine, all mopey. In his past life Mandroid was a pilot named John but now spends his days outfitted like a Radio Shack and terrorizing Roman Centurions during his time trips. Once Reeves gets what he needs, he orders the Mandroid terminated by friendly Asian scientist, Dr. Tanaka.
Because Tanaka is a friendly Asian scientist, he helps Mandy escape, outfitting him with the coolest bit of tech-costuming in the film; an all-terrain unit with tank tread that his torso attaches to when his legs are removed. Tanaka is killed and Mandroid goes off to look for Col. Hunter who turns out to be Nora Hunter (young, pre-Star Trek Denise Crosby), a military scientist working on a robotic unit called S.P.O.T. (Silly Plastic Obvious Toy) that looks ripped off from the floating droids in The Black Hole. Before anyone can ask what kind of colonel Hunter is and why she insists on changing tank-tops every five minutes, she and Mandroid are off to Mexico to thwart evil Dr. Reeves. Along the way, they try valiantly to draw out John’s memory fragments of his human life.
They also pick up the Han Solo-meets-Bogart river captain, Henry Fontana (Andrew Prine) and then, inexplicably, a ninja named Kuji (Conan Lee), who ends up being Tanaka’s son and is skilled at martial arts presumably because he’s Japanese. They fight their way through a variety of absurd obstacles, including the previously mentioned butch, flannel-wearing river lesbian Bayou Betty, an entire tribe of displaced Neanderthals, some bumbling henchman, and finally the cyborg version of Reeves, all decked out and ready to go conquer ancient Rome. There’s a big scene of Mandroid vs. Mandroid action, and then a finale where the heroes push buttons frantically to avoid disaster.
The only reason these multiple threads work at all is because the screenwriters, Danny Bilson and Paul Di Meo (who went on to write The Rocketeer), barrel through the action with tongue firmly in cheek. They often use the Fontana character as their tool of self-deprecation, and occasionally they overreach—after the comic book line, Fontana keeps saying stuff like ‘is this weird ass science fiction?’ Mostly, though, the movie is fun because it isn’t severely self-conscious or wrongly self-serious.
Conan Lee and Denise Crosby are probably the least successful of the main cast because they were always intended as window dressing. Crosby looks good in wet t-shirts and Lee hops through a giant spinning industrial fan without it looking silly, so they do what they were hired to do. Prine is appropriately laconic and loopy as the devil-may-care hero and Dotrice (an underrated actor, to be sure) does a nice evil scientist. Reynolds (relative to tobacco mogul R.J. Reynolds) is best as the Mandroid, evoking sympathy and interest with similar mannerisms that Peter Weller would perfect a year later in Robo-Cop.
The filmmaking is indeed amateurish, and director Paul Manoogian (Demonic Toys, Seed People) spends most of his time trying to find ingenious ways to finish his movie without it looking completely cheap. Sometimes it works, as with the Mandroid’s tank weaponry and sometimes it doesn’t; I’m pretty sure SPOT’s control pad is just a Texas Instruments calculator. Why, then is it so much fun? Mostly because it commits to its’ premise without looking back. It doesn’t spend time trying to push Prine and Crosby together or explaining why Tuji is a ninja, or even how the Neanderthals pose any threat to a team that has a flying robot and a Mandroid on their side. Instead The Eliminators only focuses on making everything as fast-paced and energetic as the budget and resources will allow.
It’s not a good movie and it certainly isn’t good science fiction, but its generous in its kookiness, professional and imaginative with the ridiculously tiny budget, and gentle and witty with its humor. I wish I could say half as many nice things about a number of this summer’s past action juggernauts. You will sneer. You will roll your eyes. You may possibly shout at the screen. But you will also have a good time, and maybe even wonder where you could get one of those awesome, detachable tank treads.