Once upon a time, Collateral Damage was merely a movie. Today, it’s an essay topic.
Five months ago, around the time of its initially-planned release date, this tale of domestic terrorism and Schwarzenegger-ian vengeance likely would have appeared and disappeared as just another piece of action hokum. That was before Sept. 11, and before posters for Collateral Damage became punctuation marks of bitter irony in the background of photos from Ground Zero. No matter when the film eventually turned up in theaters, it would become the basis for a bout of pop-culture soul-searching. Could we ever accept terrorism again as a subject for disposable Hollywood entertainment?
As it turns out, that wasn’t entirely the right question. The problem with Collateral Damage isn’t that it’s an action film about terrorism. The problem is that it’s an action film about terrorism that tries and flails at combining its formulaic mundanity with token efforts at creating moral complexity.
Our muscle-bound hero Arnold Schwarzen-egger plays a muscle-bound heroic L.A. firefighter named Gordon Brewer, who has a wonderful family life in which he always has time to help his son build a model plane a few hours after almost dying. Unfortunately, he’s a few minutes late at being the perfect father one fateful day when his wife and son are killed by a bomb blast while waiting for Gordon. The identity of the bomber, the Colombian guerrilla El Lobo (Cliff Curtis), is known, as is his motive—getting the CIA and the U.S. military out of the affairs of his country. But El Lobo didn’t count on one pissed-off firefighter with time to head out to Colombia himself, as well as a few years of experience on the bomb squad.
In the true Schwarzenegger tradition, Collateral Damage primarily concerns itself with getting the big guy into as many life-threatening situations as possible. He careens down raging rivers and over waterfalls, leaps out of the way of massive explosions and becomes target practice for rifle butts. In this fantasy world, no matter how many times he’s beaten and battered, Arnold will emerge with no injury more severe than a well-placed streak of blood on his forehead.
In a sense, it’s fine if the film remains squarely in that realm of action fantasy. Even in a world more sensitive to images of erupting fireballs, we can tell the difference between reality and Schwarzenegger-Land. But the makers of Collateral Damage want to give its villain a political justification for his terror. American support of right-wing Latin American regimes is rendered nearly as hiss-able as El Lobo himself, with Elias Koteas skulking about as CIA “advisor” with his own agenda. El Lobo gets a back-story in which a family loss that mirrors Gordon’s makes the black-and-white world of “evil” terrorists a bit more gray.
Such an attempt at blurring the lines between international right and wrong might seem laudable—and indeed pretty gutsy in the current political climate—if it weren’t so laughably inappropriate in this particular film. El Lobo may be a tormented soul acting out of perceived necessity, but he’s still ready to force-feed a live snake down the throat of one of his men when he screws up. There may be a psychology behind his destruction, but we’re still expected to whoop it up when he finally gets his, accompanied by the inevitable Schwarzenegger bon mot. It’s too ridiculous to be taken seriously as drama, and too ponderous to be effective as a thriller. Director Andrew Davis took on the bizarre task of turning Commando into John Sayles’ Men With Guns.
Collateral Damage gets a bit of flavor from John Turturro and John Leguizamo in snappy supporting roles, but their contributions are too small to give the film any real boost. As Arnold drones his way through the same role he’s played for 15 years, it would be hard not to see this film as a fossil even if the world hadn’t changed. For two plodding hours, Collateral Damage clunks along clumsily in search of a consistent tone. It might even strike some people as the wrong film for the wrong time—assuming enough of them are awake by the end of it to care.