Collateral Damage (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Once, Arnold Schwarzenegger strode across the screen like a god. Never an actor, but always an icon, Schwarzenegger's presence was so commanding that even his critics were forced to take notice. Part charisma, part swagger, he would blow into multiplexes like a force of nature, dispatching bad guys with a flex of his biceps while spitting out one lines with panache. No one who went to the movies in the late-'80s or early '90s will ever forget "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby." All things end, however, even the reign of the action gods. Sylvester Stallone has tried (with limited success) to transition into more serious acting. Bruce Willis has turned his back on wisecracking heroes like John McClane. Aided and abetted by drug problems, Jean Claude Van Damme has faded from the public view. Only Schwarzenegger, unmovable as Atlas, struggles against the advancing years and changing times. It is a battle he cannot win.

Collateral Damage is the third movie for Schwarzenegger following his late-'90s heart surgery. Like the previous two (End of Days and The Sixth Day), which were box office disappointments, this one has a downbeat tone. The Schwarzenegger charisma is muted. One of the star's greatest attributes during his heyday was that he never took himself too seriously. But, by its nature, Collateral Damage doesn't allow levity. No flip one-liners. No sly winks at the audience. It's a grim, humorless affair, and Schwarzenegger is a lifeless automaton. Arnold has screen presence, but he cannot act. Attempts to shape him into a different kind of action hero - one with darker motives and deep internal conflicts - are doomed to failure. The wreckage of Collateral Damage offers ample proof of this. It comes across as a glossy knock-off of a B-movie revenge flick.

Much has been written about the film's delayed release date. It was the highest profile motion picture casualty of the September 11 attack. Originally slated for an early October 2001 release, the producers deemed that the wound on the American psyche was too fresh for the movie-going public to stomach a film that deals with terrorist attacks on American soil. Four months later, the climate has changed. Now, Warner Brothers believes we're in the mood to see Arnold kick some terrorist butt (even though the terrorists in Collateral Damage are Colombian, not Arabs).

Gordon Brewer (Schwarzenegger) is a Los Angeles firefighter - a man who risks his life every day to save others. He has a loving wife and a young son, and is well liked and respected in the community. He seems to have the perfect life - until the day when a terrorist bomb attack kills nine people, including Gordon's wife and child. The name of the terrorist is "The Wolf" (Cliff Curtis) - and Gordon is the only one to have seen his face. On the way to meet his family, Gordon encountered a police officer who was really the Wolf in disguise. Now, Gordon wants revenge. So he heads to Colombia, where the Wolf has his lair, with the intention of tracking down and killing the man. Meanwhile, CIA Agent Peter Brandt (Elias Koteas) decides to use Gordon as a weapon in his war against drugs.

One of the problems with Collateral Damage is that, for an action film, the pace is sluggish. Much of the first hour is devoted to setup and exposition, and, when the action finally comes, it's not unique or energetic enough to justify the wait. It's basically Arnold pounding on his enemies until they are subdued. There's something a little disconcerting about watching him in these fight scenes. He's still big and burly, but, at age 54, Schwarzenegger is starting to look a little too old to be involved in this kind of stuff. Action films are the province of younger stars.

The plot is generic. It follows a predictable path, and the one "big" surprise won't be unexpected for anyone who is paying attention. There are plenty of opportunities to send things off in interesting directions, but director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive, Chain Reaction) and his screenwriters don't bother. Instead, we're fed familiar-looking action sequences flavored with a number of time-honored clich├ęs, including the villain-who-doesn't-die and the man-outracing-a-fireball. It will be a monumental effort for the average viewer to sit through this film without stifling at least one yawn.

There are two key ingredients to any good revenge flick. The first is that the hero's cause has to be just. Collateral Damage has that. The second is that the villain has to be so utterly, completely evil that the audience will be salivating for the hero to kick the hell out of him, grind him up, and feed his bloody remains to vultures. Collateral Damage doesn't have that. As bad guys go, the Wolf is bland. Worse still, the screenplay makes a half-hearted attempt to humanize him by giving him a wife and son and providing an explanation for his actions. None of this has us weeping with sympathy for the Wolf, but it doesn't fuel our hatred and outrage. So, we care less than we should, and, when he receives his inevitable comeuppance, it hardly merits a shrug.

The film has one saving grace - a delightfully quirky performance by John Turturro in a small role as Gordon's cellmate in a Colombian jail. Tuturro's not around for long, but, when he is there, he easily steals every scene from the film's bigger and higher paid star. What's more, the only times when Schwarzenegger seems to come alive are when he shares the screen with Turturro. After seeing these two together for about five minutes, I could envision a pretty good buddy movie. Unfortunately, that's not what the filmmakers had in mind. Later, Schwarzenegger is briefly paired with John Leguizamo with dramatically less satisfying results.

For Arnold Schwarzenegger, this may represent the end of the line. He has a few sequels lined up - Terminator 3, True Lies 2, Conan 3 - but those have more going for them than the Schwarzenegger name. They will undoubtedly succeed, but not just because he's in them. And politics beckon. Like Ronald Reagan, Schwarzenegger would like to turn his attention to making a run at the California governorship. Ultimately, that challenge may appeal to him more than trying to reclaim his place in the minds of a fickle movie-going population that currently views him as a fossil.

Collateral Damage (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2002-02-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1