Damaged Goods 

Schwarzenegger's Collateral squanders its assets

At the risk of repeating the obvious, Collateral Damage, held from its original October release date after the terrorist attacks, feels dated in the post-September 11 world. But it would have felt passé and unnecessary regardless; it's the sort of film Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, and their ilk cranked out on a near-monthly basis when Reagan was president. Always boasting a tagline like, "They killed his family. Now he's gonna make them pay!" and featuring either communists, terrorists, drug dealers, or the Mafia as the villains, they were films designed to make you feel good about being American, provided you didn't think too much about the realities of global politics. At best, such films were cinematic junk food; at worst, empty-headed xenophobia.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is almost certainly not alone when he talks about the need for Americans to see a bad dude go berserk on terrorists on the big screen now, but director Andrew Davis' film has the worst sort of bad timing, reminding us not just of recent events we'd like to put behind us but of like-minded movies that should also be forgotten. Worse yet, Schwarzenegger and Davis seem to think they're making a serious film, when it's little more than slight.

It's a nicely coincidental touch that Schwarzenegger plays a fireman named Gordie, and novel enough that he doesn't kill anybody with a gun or utter a hackneyed wisecrack, but the temptation was clearly too strong to unleash his übermensch tendencies. Though he takes a beating early on, watching his wife and son die in an embassy bombing carried out by Marxist, drug-running Colombian terrorists (no mob ties, but three out of four ain't bad), it isn't long before he's striding through the jungles of Colombia as if on a Stairmaster, ignoring admonitions that to do so is "frickin' cracked." Once in harm's way, he becomes a combination of The Fugitive, plunging into a waterfall; MacGyver, rigging up elaborate explosive devices with materials on hand; James Bond, attempting to seduce his adversary's wife and turn her against him; Indiana Jones, sporting a silly fedora; and even Mike Tyson, felling opponents with one punch before biting a chunk out of a guy's ear and spitting it across the room (garnering massive applause from the audience at the L.A. premiere).

As the object of his pursuit, character actor Cliff Curtis (you'll recognize the face from Three Kings and Training Day) commits the sin of being absolutely generic. It's not entirely his fault: Screenwriters David and Peter Griffiths apparently decided a strong villain wasn't necessary and limited Curtis' character, cleverly named El Lobo, to scant screen time. We know he's evil because he makes one of his men swallow a live poisonous snake, and because he hangs pictures of Lenin on the walls. We don't get much more: There's some talk about his family being killed by a U.S.-backed faction, but this film has no time for moral gray areas; as such, political discussion conveniently dissipates. A plot twist toward the end ultimately goes a little way toward explaining El Lobo's impotence, but fails to offer much else to fill the void.

Schwarzenegger appears to be taking acting lessons these days; if you can ignore the intrusively familiar accent, he has recently turned in some of his most credible work, a trend that unfortunately correlates with a significant decline in the quality of the scripts he chooses. (Collateral Damage also sports some creaky visual effects for which there are no excuses, since Warner Bros. had four extra months to touch them up.) The oft-insufferable John Leguizamo, as comic relief, isn't terrible either, though his role amounts to little more than addressing Arnold as "jolly green giant" and "sour kraut." John Turturro steals a scene or two by impersonating Harry Dean Stanton, but the major talent gap of the film lies with Francesca Neri (Hannibal) as El Lobo's inexplicable Caucasian supermodel-of-a-wife. Neri seems to think repeatedly batting her eyelids counts as acting.

Portraying the most believable character in the film is Crash's Elias Koteas, as a CIA agent making unsavory deals to try to protect the U.S. -- even if it means screwing over innocent people in the process. He's the one element of the movie that feels absolutely timely, embodying Dick Che-ney's philosophy of recruiting unpleasant individuals who'll get the job done. Standing in stark contrast to that is the fictional White House's response to the first major act of foreign terror on American soil: "We must fight the temptation to make hasty policy decisions we might regret." Insert your own punch line here.

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