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'Collateral Damage'

Ah-nudd fights our battle himself in the overblown 'Collateral Damage'

Friday, February 08, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Life is never going to be the same after Sept. 11. That was the mantra we all chanted in the anxious aftermath of that dreadful day. Five months later, we have returned to enough of a sense of normalcy that Hollywood feels we may be able to handle a movie about a terrorist explosion that kills innocent Americans.

'Collateral Damage'

Rating: R for violence and some language.

PLAYERS: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elias Koteas, Cliff Curtis.

DIRECTOR: Andrew Davis.

WEB SITE: collateraldamage.



One thing is for certain. Our reactions to "Collateral Damage," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger single-handedly tracks down a killer that the CIA and the U.S. military can't find, will be markedly different from what they would have been if Sept. 11 had never happened and the movie had been released last fall as originally scheduled.

Schwarzenegger plays a fireman, Gordy Brewer, whose wife and son are killed in the blast. A Colombian rebel named Claudio (Cliff Curtis) planted the bomb in a stolen police motorcycle outside the Colombian consulate. Gordy's family members were innocent bystanders.

The terrorist, echoing the words of Osama bin Laden, vows that Americans will not feel safe anywhere until they butt out of the region. Before the blast, director Andrew Davis provides an aerial shot of twin office skyscrapers. After an initial jolt, we realize they are the Century City towers in Los Angeles, familiar from their use as a landmark in dozens of TV programs.

Could these elements have been added to the film after Sept. 11 -- and what, if anything, might have been removed? In any case, the towers are a red herring -- the blast takes place at a street-level location.

The movie plays out realistically at first. Brewer is a man in a daze, in shock at what happened to his family, blaming himself for being a few minutes late in meeting them and recovering from his own relatively minor injuries.

Then comes the moment when he realizes Claudio has probably already escaped, and that the government may not be willing or able to capture him. Gordy's eyes narrow, his whole body straightens up and he turns into Ah-nuld the Avenger. The minute he heads to Colombia, the movie goes south -- taking its hero on a suicidal crusade that he will obviously survive and throwing out most of the standard action-film cliches like so much used confetti.

One expects more from director Davis, who made "The Fugitive" and also has a knack for making silk purses from wooden action stars. "Code of Silence" may be the best of Chuck Norris' movies. "Under Siege" is unquestionably Steven Seagal's finest moment, although that's kind of like being the best-dressed man at a tractor pull.

"Collateral Damage" features what for Schwarzenegger qualifies as a nuanced performance. He doesn't ham it up, he doesn't offer any glib one-liners, he seems honestly devastated by the death of his family. The problem is that Arnold is most tolerable with his tongue in his cheek.

The movie also features such interesting actors as John Turturro and John Leguizamo in small roles, which only makes you wish the movie were worthy of using them in bigger ones.

Screenwriters David and Peter Griffiths try to introduce some moral complexity. The Colombian rebels appear to be fighting government forces that are hardly pure themselves, the CIA agent in Colombia (Elias Koteas) has no qualms about killing innocents in his quest for the terrorists and Claudio's wife (Francesca Neri) suggests her husband started his rebellion with noble motives and when Gordy says he's not like Claudio, she replies, "Not yet."

It all seems more than the movie can handle. Instead of following through with any of this, "Collateral Damage" appears to contradict itself when it tries to be thoughtful. The ludicrous plot turns don't help.

But "Collateral Damage" also founders on its pre-Sept. 11 assumptions: that American politicians would wimp out on finding the terrorist; that the U.S. military would be ineffectual and that an amateur with no training or experience would succeed where they had thus far failed; that blowing things up real good -- blowing PEOPLE up real good -- qualifies as sure-fire entertainment.

Most of all, there's the sneering reference to Gordy, made by both the terrorist and the American military, as "the fireman." You know, as in, "How did a frigging fireman manage to do all this?"

Sept. 11 made us recognize the real heroism of firefighters. The tricked-up movie bravado of Arnold Schwarzenegger only looks even more like so much stale cheese.

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