It doesn't take a cynic to ask whether Warner Bros. held back the release of Collateral Damage because the company thought the movie would hurt post-Sept. 11 America or vice versa. Notwithstanding the momentary eagerness of some industry moguls to offer consulting services to the Bushies, Hollywood is ever more likely to ask what its country can do for it than the other way around. The answer, in the case of Collateral Damage, is a lot: it's a sure bet that the groundswell of patriotism and firefighter adoration we've witnessed over the past five months—not to mention the sky-high levels of public anxiety about international terrorism—will prove God's gift to the ticket sales of Andrew Davis' thriller about a valiant Los Angeles fireman who takes on the Colombian guerrilla responsible for blowing up his wife and son. Which may be one reason why the studio thoughtfully provided an array of advance screenings for critics instead of one of those two-days-before-release-day media events that typically shelter a potential blockbuster from unwelcome notices before its crucial opening weekend.
Another is that aside from the movie's touching conviction that the answer to Colombia's civil war and America's new vulnerability lies in Arnold Schwarzenegger's dependably bulging biceps, Collateral Damage is a pretty decent action picture. Granted, the movie suffers from the liabilities that often attend the genre: a breezy disregard for character in a screenplay—by novice writers David and Peter Griffiths—composed almost entirely of threatening monosyllables. ("When're you gonna kill me?" "Right now." Thunk.) But the highs offer all the technical competence and suspense we've a right to expect from the director of The Fugitive, including a heart-stopping set piece that persuades you over and over that the movie has climaxed, only to apply another wicked turn of the screw.
The opening sequence, in which a firefighter is seen desperately trying to save victims in a burning building, is sure to stir up recent fears. It turns out to be a nurse's prophetic anxiety dream, for in short order she and her little boy really do go up in flames when a terrorist blows up the tall building in Los Angeles outside which they've been waiting for her husband, Gordy, whose dedication to his job is exceeded only by his devotion to his family. It's not just the Teutonic accent that makes Schwarzenegger a wildly improbable choice to play an all-American everyman hero: the poor man appears crippled by doubt about whether he's meant to be terminator or kindergarten cop. For a brief spell, the grieving husband comes on like a deranged bull, trashing the offices of a Colombian terrorist sympathizer who refers in a television interview to the death of Gordy's wife and son as "collateral damage." Then he's the innocent abroad who, having witnessed some pointless bickering between a Senate inquiry committee and the CIA over how to respond to the bombing without jeopardizing the U.S.'s chummy relations with the Colombian government, straps on a backpack and sneaks into the country to play avenging angel, pausing briefly to save some peasants from El Lobo ("The Wolf"), the guerrilla drug lord who set the bomb, and to wipe out his cocaine-processing plant. Along the way, Gordy meets two expatriate North American sources of comic relief (John Leguizamo and John Turturro) and stumbles across a parallel narrative involving Selena, an enigmatic young European (played by the luscious-lipped Italian actress Francesca Neri, who's as near as this primly chaste movie gets to a love interest), and her adopted little boy, Mauro. The pair not only remind him of his dead family but also engineer some quality face time with his quarry.
And what a generic face it is. Had Davis set Collateral Damage in the Middle East, the movie would likely have languished even longer unreleased, too close to the bone of current events. Still, for all practical purposes, El Lobo (played by New Zealander Cliff Curtis, who's looking at a long and lucrative career portraying swarthy Others) is the functional equivalent of the movie Arab—indiscriminately cruel, rapacious and vicious; fanatically dedicated to ends over means; and contemptuous of all that North America holds dear. "What's the difference between you and I?" asks the grammatically challenged Colombian when he has Gordy in his steely grip. "Ze difference," replies his unflappable prisoner, "is zat I'm just going to kill you"—as opposed to several buildings full of unsuspecting Americans, scores of innocent peasants who serve Davis' grisly fondness for the artfully arranged dead body as much as they do the guerrilla leader's blood lust, and a mildly incompetent subordinate whom El Lobo rebukes by forcing a reptile down his throat. Gordy, it goes without saying, kills only when he must—and that, along with the family values his enemy disdains, is what makes him an American. Never mind that the callous euphemism from which the movie takes its title, a bit of blarney created by our own military, is blithely projected into the mouth of the enemy. To be American, as Hollywood movies have been telling us since World War II, is to fight a morally refined war—a claim that's not merely refutable by history, but also signals a deluded naivet about the practice of war itself, which allows for few such niceties.
Of course, there's no reason to sentimentalize the Colombian civil war, none of whose factions can be described as good liberals. Still, Collateral Damage is far more telling in what it suggests—unwittingly for the most part—about us, about the rabid mixture of hubris, paranoia, xenophobia and downright muddleheadedness with which we define our own place on the stage of world terrorism, not to mention the bizarre uses to which American individualism can be put under pressure. That the movie offers a ringing endorsement of vigilante justice is par for the course: it's an Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller. Yet in the process of tracking down the man who not only killed his family, but—in a plot twist whose eerie prescience must have the distributors reaching for their Maalox—also plans to blow up some crucial government buildings in Washington, D.C., Gordy finds himself a target not only of El Lobo, but of a ruthless CIA loose cannon, represented in a weaselly turn by the Canadian actor Elias Koteas. Meanwhile, scenes of U.S.-sponsored planes zooming in to flatten the drug baron's hideaway evoke shades of Apocalypse Now and fears of the Vietnamization of American involvement in Colombia. Collateral Damage may be pressing its Hollywood-liberal credentials here, but it wouldn't surprise me if the vast majority of American moviegoers see in Gordy a reflection of their own mistrust of institutions, be they "theirs" or ours. It may, after all, be easier for Americans to love a firefighter than it is for them to love their government.
Collateral Damage was directed by Andrew Davis; written by David and Peter Griffiths; produced by Steven Reuther and David Foster; and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Cliff Curtis. Now playing countywide.
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