These days, the two most important words in Hollywood are “cinematic universe.” Inspired by the billions of dollars Marvel has made with its Avengers movies, studios have been frantic to jumpstart their own cinematic pyramid schemes with intellectual properties from the Justice League of America to the Universal Monsters to Nickelodeon cartoons. The idea, of course, is to maximize profit by giving audiences movies that spin off characters into their own movies or movies that collect characters from other franchises into massive team-up spectacles. It worked well back in the day when Frankenstein met the Wolf Man and most recently when Captain America fought Iron Man, but it remains to be seen whether or not audiences will sit through “Friar Tuck: Origins” before they see Robin Hood finally get the Merry Men together in the last five minutes of his movie.
With so many studios desperately pushing for the Big Bang that will launch the next sure-fire hit cinematic universe, it’s easy to forget that movies used to be stupid enough to just shove a bunch of characters into one movie without making audiences pony up for the installment plan. And so you have a movie like 1986’s “Eliminators,” which resembles a look into a cinematic universe based on the cheap, unlicensed action figures they used to sell in gas stations.
Just like Iron Man was the central character the rest of the Avengers movies orbited around, the heart and soul of the Eliminators is the Mandroid, a pilot who crash landed in the South American jungle and was turned into a cyborg by the mad scientist Abbott Reeves. Reeves also has a time machine, and he sends Mandroid back in time to scavenge ancient Roman artifacts. When the movie starts, Mandroid is in the process of bringing a centurion’s shield back from ancient times, and he’s grown tired of following his programming. With the help of Reeves’ beleaguered assistant Takada, Mandroid breaks free of his programming long enough to escape. Takada is killed for his trouble, but he tells Mandroid to seek out Colonel Hunter in the United States for help.
Mandroid, wearing the traditional coat-and-hat disguise preferred by Ben Grimm and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, sneaks onto a military base and discovers that Colonel Hunter is – gasp – a woman, played by Denise Crosby in the moment just before “Star Trek” will make her a nerd sex symbol. She recognizes her own technology inside Mandroid, and this is good enough for her to drop everything she’s doing to help Mandroid kill Reeves to avenge Takada.
Hunter also brings along S.P.O.T., her little flying robot buddy whose name is an acronym for something too stupid for me to bother looking it up. S.P.O.T. has three chief modes of transportation: dangling from fishing line, attached to Mandroid’s shoulder like a stuffed parrot, and transmogrified into a cheap animation effect. They’re not exactly superheroes, but at this point they’re actually avenging something, so at least that’s one thing they have over the Avengers.
Once the nascent team arrives in South America, they need a riverboat captain to take them into the jungle in search of Reeves’ compound. In an odd confluence of events, none of the people the Eliminators meet from this point on appear to be native to South America. Especially not-South American is Harry Fontana, a riverboat captain who agrees to ferry Hunter, Mandroid and S.P.O.T. to their destination. After being chased down the river by Reeves’ entourage of hayseed goons and Fontana’s business rivals, the group locates Mandroid’s downed plane as well as a tribe of Neanderthals who were pulled into the present day by Reeves’ experiments. One caveman sizes Fontana up for the soup pot by pinching his butt, to which Fontana replies, “Fruity cavemen!” Not only is that regressive and homophobic by today’s standards, but come on, “Fruity Pebbles” was right there and they didn’t even go for it.
Meanwhile, Mandroid discovers he’s being followed by – wait for it – a ninja. As it turns out, by an incredible coincidence, the ninja also is searching for Reeves. Poor Takada was the ninja’s father, you see, and once again the Eliminators have more members officially avenging something than the Avengers. Mandroid and the ninja meet back up with the others just in time for S.P.O.T. to malfunction and start laser-blasting at the group, so the ninja introduces himself to his new friends by chopping their cute little robot sidekick in half and that’s the end of S.P.O.T. for the rest of the movie.
There’s little time to shed a tear for the group’s store-brand R2-D2, however, as they finally make their way to Reeves’ compound, where Mandroid stands outside the gate and screams “Reeves!” like he’s freaking Brando in “Streetcar Named Desire.” The ninja jumps through the rapidly-spinning blades of an exhaust fan using his ninja reflexes, which is accomplished through aggressive use of slow-motion photography and presumably a trampoline.
Reeves’ plan, as it is revealed, is not simply to corner the market on Roman antiquities. No, he wants to travel back in time and conquer the Roman Empire by turning himself into a Mandroid. This was why he went through the trouble of sending the Mandroid back in time to begin with, because if you’re going to travel back in time and conquer the Roman Empire through advanced technology, you want to make sure the armor you’re wearing over your robot suit is authentic. You don’t want to look weird or anything. Reeves emerges in his Robo-Roman suit and takes out Mandroid pretty quickly. We also find out Reeves trusts his dumbest and fattest henchman with something called an “ion disruptor,” but the ninja jams up the ion nozzle with a ninja star and it blows up. Ions are funny like that.
The non-cyborg contingent of the Eliminators becomes trapped in an energy web, but Mandroid musters the strength to sacrifice himself for their freedom. They chase Reeves into his time machine garage, only to find out that he’s already activated the time machine and has arrived in ancient Rome. In frustration, Fontana punches a keyboard and suddenly Reeves is flung even further back into the past where there was almost nothing living on Earth. Thus does Reeves become the only supervillain in cinematic history to be Fonzied to death.
Looking at “Eliminators” with 21st century eyes, it’s a miracle that the movie ends right at that moment. There’s no sequel hook, no post-credits stinger teasing the next adventure of the Eliminators, not even an epilogue where Fontana and Hunter plan to go their separate ways but wind up admitting they’re in love. That’s because the ambition behind “Eliminators” went into trying to throw as many crazy things at the wall as it could, rather than trying to sell audiences on future installments.
“Eliminators” is a veritable casserole of genre movies, and it serves the same purpose as a casserole – to cover up the taste of something questionable by surrounding it with something serviceable. The only character that gets any real attention is the Mandroid, who has a bad case of Pinocchio Syndrome and finally gets to redeem his wretched condition to save his only friends. You can imagine the screenwriters (Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo of “The Rocketeer” and possible future CC3K entry “Zone Troopers”) concocting the Mandroid’s story, realizing it was a little thin and then adding cavemen, ninjas, time travel, and robots to fill it out.
But even though “Eliminators” is often dumb and draggy (the riverboat chase in particular goes on way too long and almost derails the movie about a third of the way in), it could never be accused of being predictable. In my mind, that counts for a lot when you’re searching for late-night entertainment. Nothing in the movie is given enough attention to make much of an impression, but there are so many things going on that it hardly matters. Today’s team-up movies are designed to leave the audience wanting more, but “Eliminators” is one of those rare cheesy movies that knows when too much is exactly enough.