The film was a commercial success with grossing over $242 million against a budget of $100 million. It received mixed reviews from critics, but praised Schwarzenneger's performance, the action sequences and the visual effects. It was released in the United States on June 21, 1996 and was nominated for the Academy Award for Sound Effects Editing in 1997.
John Kruger is a U.S. Marshal working for the Witness Security Protection Program (WITSEC) specializing in "erasing" high-profile witnesses, faking their deaths to keep them safe from those who may wish to silence them. John is assigned by his boss, Chief Arthur Beller, to protect Lee Cullen, a senior executive for the defense contractor Cyrez Corporation, as Lee informed the FBI that her employer William Donohue, the corrupt CEO of Cyrez, plans to sell a top secret electronic pulse rifle on the black market.
To procure evidence, Lee copies critical data from the Cyrez mainframe onto two discs: one for the FBI, and the other as her own security. However, Donohue catches wind of Lee accessing the mainframe and orders her into his office. After confiscating Lee's hidden camera and threatening her with a pistol, Donohue commits suicide in front of her. Disgruntled with the FBI because of failure to guarantee her safety, she delivers the evidence but refuses to submit herself to WITSEC, despite John's advice. Unfortunately, the FBI's disc is intercepted by a mole working for Undersecretary of Defense Daniel Harper, who is revealed to be the true mastermind behind the arms sale.
That night, Lee's house is attacked by armed gunmen led by a man with an EM rifle. John rescues Lee and takes her to New York City to hide her, keeping her location secret even from WITSEC. However, John soon learns from his mentor, fellow Marshal Robert DeGuerin, that several witnesses have been murdered because a mole in WITSEC is leaking information and they must relocate their witnesses. They raid a remote cabin and kill the mercenaries holding DeGuerin's witness hostage, but DeGuerin discreetly kills her during the raid, revealing he is the mole and a key player of the arms sale. By the time John realizes DeGuerin is the mole, DeGuerin has already traced Lee to NYC and has framed John as the mole by murdering WITSEC Deputy Monroe with John's gun. John escapes and rescues Lee from DeGuerin's gunmen in the nick of time. With Lee and John in the wind, DeGuerin has them both branded fugitives, cutting off any escape out of the city.
John, Lee, and Johnny Casteleone, a mob witness whose life John saved in the beginning of the film, penetrate Cyrez's office to read Lee's security-encoded copy. The disk reveals that at the Baltimore docks, DeGuerin and his conspirators plan to sell 1000 units of EM rifles to the notorious Russian Mafia boss Sergei Ivanovich Petrofsky, which threatens to usher in a dangerous new era of global terrorism. Cyrez operatives pinpoint their whereabouts and DeGuerin kidnaps Lee and has her brought to the docks where a railgun shipment is being loaded onto a Russian freighter. Fortunately, Johnny has his mobster cousin Tony Two-Toes and his two associates use their union connections to help John stop the shipment by killing all of DeGuerin's and Petrofsky's henchmen, including Petrofsky. In a final struggle atop a shipping container, DeGuerin holds Lee hostage, but John manages to free her and destroy the lock on the container crane, dropping DeGuerin and the container to the ground and exposing the presence of the rifles to the arriving authorities. John rescues the critically wounded DeGuerin and leaves him to be detained by Chief Beller and the authorities, clearing his and Lee's names in the process.
DeGuerin, Harper, and Morehart are indicted for treason. A few weeks later a hearing is held, but with the implication that under civil law jurisdiction a conviction and sentence of the culprits will not be possible. After the hearing, as the conspirators enter their limo, all smiles, John publicly fakes his own death along with Lee's a couple of hundred yards away. While the conspirators debate whether to start a new operation, their limo pulls onto a train track and stops and the driver, who turns out to be Johnny in disguise, locks the doors and exits the vehicle. The phone rings, Harper answers it and gives it to DeGuerin , knowing that he won't be safe, John taunts DeGuerin with a final message: "You've just been erased" as a train crashes into the limo, killing the conspirators in a fiery explosion.
Director Chuck Russell and star Arnold Schwarzenegger were originally working on another project together when Eraser was brought to their attention. Russell was excited about the possibilities the film could bring between actor and the character: "I see Arnold the way a lot of people do -- as a mythic, bigger-than-life character -- and that's who Kruger is. The character and the scenario are based firmly in reality, but I liked the mythic proportions of this man with a strong sense of duty, a strong sense of honor, who will literally do anything to protect a noble witness. I was excited about doing a film that had heroic proportions." Producer Arnold Kopelson was also keen to cast Schwarzenegger in the role of "The Eraser", having talked with the actor about working on projects before. Vanessa Williams would be cast as the lead female character, Lee Cullen, the key witness Eraser must protect. Williams came to the attention of the Kopelsons when Maria Shriver, the wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, suggested her for the role. To play the character of DeGuerin (Kruger's mentor and the main sociopathic antagonist), the filmmakers wanted an actor who could "convey intelligence, skill and magnetism - a more mature version of the Kruger character", they would cast James Caan in this role. Before Caan was officially cast, Jonathan Pryce was also considered for the role. The screenplay was initially the work of Tony Puryear, who had a background in advertising and rap videos. Writers Walon Green and Michael S. Chernuchin had previously worked together on the television drama Law & Order. Extensive, uncredit rewrites were made by Frank Darabont and William Wisher Jr. (Terminator 2: Judgment Day). Additional rewrites were made by John Milius as a favor to Schwarznegger.
The "rail-gun" featured in the film as a key plot device, Schwarzenegger talks on the subject: "We paid a lot of attention to making the audience feel the danger of this weapon, that anyone can be outside of your house, looking right through the walls. It really leaves you nowhere to hide," he explains. "But, on top of that, we show the sophistication of the weapon in a lot of fun ways: you not only see through a building, you see a person's skeleton and even their heart beating inside. There are some great visual effects there."
Eraser began principal photography in New York City, locations would include The Harlem Rail Yard in the South Bronx, Central Park's Sheep Meadow and Chinatown. Following shooting in New York production moved to Washington D.C. For the action sequence which takes place in the Reptile House of New York City Zoo, interiors were built on the soundstages of the Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank, California.
One of the most demanding action sequences in the film featured the character of Kruger forced to flee from a jet speeding through the skies at 250 miles per hour. Speaking about this scene, director Russell says: "These things are jigsaw puzzle pieces not only within shooting sequence but within each shot. You had elements that were live action, elements that were miniature, sometimes computer-generated, and they're all married together in the final processing." Some of the physical stunts were performed by Schwarzenegger himself. For the "aerial" stunt Arnold was required to fall 65 feet in vertical descent and perform a back flip in mid-flight. The shot took seven takes to get right. In the final film, Kruger appears to drop along the length of the fuselage and past the flaming engine of the Jet thanks to inventive camera angles and special effects.
The original name of the Cyrez corporations was "Cyrex". However, Cyrix, a microprocessor corporation and rival of Intel, protested. The name was then changed digitally in any scenes where the name appeared in a fairly costly process for the time, and dialogue redubbed. Some instances of the "Cyrex" logo are still visible in the finished film.
Eraser had an opening weekend of $24.5 million in the US during the summer season of 1996. The final US gross was $101.2 million and final worldwide gross was $242.3 million.
Based on 45 reviews collected by Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an overall approval rating from critics of 36% and an average score of 4.9/10.
A more positive review came from Roger Ebert, who gave the film 3 stars out of a possible 4. He wrote that there were so many plot holes that "it helps to have a short attention span", but that Eraser is nonetheless "actually good action fun, with spectacular stunts and special effects" and a spirited performance from Williams "running and jumping and fighting and shooting and kicking and screaming and being tied to chairs and smuggling computer discs and looking great."