Screenplay : David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths (story by Ronald Roose and David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Arnold Schwarzenegger (Gordon Brewer), Elias Koteas (CIA Agent Peter Brandt), Francesca Neri (Selena Perrini), Cliff Curtis (Claudio "The Wolf" Perrini), John Leguizamo (Felix Ramirez), John Turturro (Sean Armstrong)
Originally pulled from the fall 2001 release schedule in the wake of the events of September 11, when Hollywood had an unsurprisingly temporary and fleeting crisis of conscience regarding the depiction of violence in the movies, particularly terrorist-related violence, Andrew Davis' Collateral Damage has now been released, probably with the hopes that it will serve some form of mass catharsis. Maybe it would have, if it had been a better movie.
Collateral Damage opens with a successful terrorist car bombing that mains two-dozen people and kills nine others outside the Colombian consulate in Los Angeles, including the wife and young son of Los Angeles firefighter Gordon Brewer (Arnold Schwarzenegger)—the "collateral damage" of the title. But, most of the movie milks its pleasure by foiling terrorist deeds. Ideologically, Collateral Damage functions much like Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985). Both are broad, violent fantasies about American strength embodied in one determined superman who simultaneously defeats two systems: foreign evil-doers and the overblown U.S. governmental bureaucracy that is ultimately powerless to do anything about them. The wound to be healed in Rambo was intended: the legacy of Vietnam. September 11, the wound always lurking in the background of Collateral Damage by sheer historical accident, was not intended, but it is impossible to view the movie without taking it into account. It doesn't make the movie any more important, but it does tend to cause one to at least reflect on why we enjoy seeing things blow up on-screen.
Penned by first-time screenwriting brothers David and Peter Griffiths, Collateral Damage never quite achieves its cathartic mission because its rote narrative is largely of the straight-to-video variety. The production values are bigger and the direction by Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) takes the movie up a notch higher, but it never grabs you where it needs to. The dialogue is flat throughout, and the transparency of the story is such that, when there is a genuine twist near the end, it only highlights how dull the rest of the movie has been up until that point.
Part of the problem is the presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who neither looks nor sounds like the "everyman" his role is intended to be. Well into his 50s, he is still trying to be the one-man army he was nearly two decades ago in comic-book military fantasies like Commando (1985). The story requires Schwarzenegger's character to head south of the border to track down the elusive terrorist who killed his family, known as "The Wolf" (Cliff Curtis), in the steamy jungles and third-world civil-war chaos of Colombia. Essentially a mission of infiltration that would be difficult enough for a trained commando with the ability to blend into a crowd, the possibility of Schwarzenegger's character pulling it off is laughable, even after you've suspended your disbelief. There are moments of near absurdity as the hulking, Austrian-accented Gordon moves through the streets of small Colombian villages, trying to be incognito in a white Panama Jack hat. When John Leguizamo shows up halfway through the movie as a cocaine drug lord, he also brings a much-needed sense of humor to the movie, referring to Gordon quite correctly as "German sausage."
Not surprisingly, Schwarzenegger is not the only actor seemingly out of place. The list also includes Italian actress Francesca Neri (Hannibal), with her Michelle Pfeiffer lips and shiny blue eyes, as the Wolf's wife who ends up siding with Gordon, and John Turturro as a Canadian mechanic whose connections with the terrorist organization give Gordon his best chance to infiltrate them. Cliff Curtis does moderately well playing the Wolf, the kind of terrorist whose punishes a failed minion by forcing a poisonous snake down his throat, even though most of his scenes involve scowling or reciting angry platitudes about how Americans never ask why peasants need guns (it's a pertinent question, but it's so detached from the world of this movie that the words vaporize as soon as they're spoken).
Collateral Damage is replete with exaggerated violence and narrow escapes, including one in which Gordon goes over an enormous waterfall, another in which he pretends to fix a generator while secretly booby-trapping an entire cocaine factory with explosives (don't the guards have eyes?), and yet another in which he severs several gas pipes in order to generate a huge explosion to kill the bad guys. The movie's never-recognized irony is that Gordon is trying to prevent terrorist destruction, but he winds up killing more people and destroying more property (Colombian and American) than the terrorists do.
Another of the movie's ironies—and this one is much sadder—is that, when it does work, it works largely in context of the post-September 11 world. Granted, the terrorists here are South American rather than Middle Eastern, but they still function in the movie just as all foreign enemies do: as a specific body on which we can project all our abstract anger and fears. When there is tension, it is more a result of our thoughts wandering to the realities of terror than the near-farce playing out on-screen.
So much of the movie is so synthetic—from the unconvincing special effects in the stunt scenes to the simplistic dichotomies set up among the characters—that it is impossible to take it seriously. Unfortunately, Collateral Damage seems to take itself terribly seriously, as if it were making a real statement about the realities of terrorism, when it should be playing itself off as the fantastical comic-book adventure that it is.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick