Collateral Damage (2002)


“It was literally an hour and a half after the terrorist attack. My wife and I, we took the kids to school, and on the way to school, my wife turned to me and said, ‘You can forget about Collateral Damage right now.'” Recalling his own version of September 11 for Matt Lauer on Today (6 February), 54-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger looks like he always does on talk shows, perfectly pleased to be his famous and much adored self. Lauer asks him if, on that terrible day back in September, he considered that maybe his career was about to change forever (no more Terminators, only a long line of Kindergarten Cops stretching into eternity…). And Schwarzenegger says exactly the right thing: “You know, I wasn’t thinking about my career at all at that point, because I think the whole country was so wrapped up in what has happened, the huge tragedy, the thousands of people that lost their lives… [My career] became so little compared to what happened to so many people’s lives.”

Think what you want about Arnold Schwarzenegger as an actor, athlete, Republican supporter, politician, director, or husband, the guy is a magnificent movie star, gracious, hard-working, and utterly self-confident. Hitting the talk show trail to pitch Collateral Damage — about an LA fireman who exacts mighty vengeance from terrorists who kill his wife and child — he’s handling the unsurprising questions with the patient assurance of someone who’s done his homework. When asked to explain why the movie is release-able now, just four months after 9-11, he’s ready: Within weeks of the attacks, he says, he was reading reports of rising rentals of “movies such as Die Hard and True Lies, all those kind of terrorist movies.” So, he concludes, apparently quite thoughtfully, people “wanted to see this with a positive ending, they wanted to see entertainment mixed in with it, something that was typical Hollywood, over the top, not like the real situation, where we’re hunting down the terrorists with no end in sight. They wanted to see an end in sight…”

Collateral Damage delivers that end. A lot of it.

At the start of the film, Gordy Brewer (Schwarzenegger) is on the job, inside a fiery building, busting through walls and floors in efforts to save the poor tenants, including an elderly woman who speaks only Spanish (this is the usual preemptive movie trick, wherein the hero reveals that he really doesn’t hate everyone who speaks Spanish (carries “suspicious” suitcases, wears a mustache, is black or “Middle Eastern”); see also True Lies, where Arnold works with the “good Arab-American” against the “bad Arabs”). Brave and big-hearted, as well as strong enough to carry the woman through the hot, smoky hallway, Gordy is also an amazing dad and spouse. When he gets home at 6 am, he doesn’t go to bed or get a shower; rather, he spends some quality time with his adorable little boy, giving mom a chance to sleep. All this perfection, of course, bodes ill: within minutes, Gordy’s late to meet the wife-and-child at some outdoor café, unfortunately located next door to a terrorist target, the Colombian Consulate.

Given the film’s title, you won’t be surprised to hear that it lingers on this bit of exposition: not only does Gordy actually exchange a few words with the bomber, who comes disguised as an LA traffic cop (not unlike the T-1000 in T2), but the little boy plays with a toy his dad has given him, and then Gordy waves at the family just at the moment they blow up. This is surely an ugly moment, but the point is not to make you feel sad or even horrified, as much as it is to make you understand (and support) Gordy’s emotional shift, from courageous life-saver to really pissed-off life-taker, making a serious dent in the bad guys’ capacity to kill more Innocent People.

This undertaking makes Gordy something of an ideal Everyman, down but not out, wounded but resilient, distraught but eager to “get justice for [his] family,” as one CIA guy puts it. Or, as Schwarzenegger described the whole shebang to the guys on Fox NFL Sunday (27 January), “There’s some serious butt-kicking going on.” Okay. You expect that much in a movie that, pre-9-11, was touted as a kind of comeback vehicle for the man whose last two films, End of Days and The 6th Day, didn’t exactly destroy the competition at the box office. It helps, post-9-11, that this “butt-kicking” is performed by someone whose enemies keep calling him “the Fireman,” as in, “He’s just a Fireman!” or “What about the Fireman?” (to which the villain’s oh so clever response is, “Let him burn in hell!”). Not that real firemen kick butts, but if they had to, they’d do it like Arnold. Yay team!

Gordy hardly needs more motivation than what he’s got (the dead family), but this increasingly psychotic film provides it anyway, first, in the form of an obviously odious villain, code-named El Lobo, a.k.a. The Wolf, a.k.a. Claudio Perrini (played by Cliff Curtis, looking much like he did as Pablo Escobar in Blow). Not only is Claudio sneaky, cruel, and calculating, he’s also well known to the U.S. Intelligence Community (and even gets some positive press, when a local news crew interviews a supportive “activist” whom the FBI is monitoring but not stopping). The feds inevitably let Claudio “slip away,” back to Colombia, so that Gordy can hunt him down. Though Claudio hides in a jungle (specifically, in the Guerilla Zone) rather than desert tunnels, and though he doesn’t appear to be financed by his family’s oil and banking interests, he’s bound to recall a certain other infamous terrorist who’s mad at U.S. interventions in his homeland’s political and economic infrastructures, and who makes it a habit to release videotapes detailing those grievances.

But Claudio is an old stereotype more than he is modeled after anyone in particular: even if he doesn’t glower and strap bombs to his body, he comes up with plenty of other evil deeds: he thinks little of endangering his own family, knows how to use the media for maximum scary-effect (his videos feature an irate figure in a ski-mask), and kills one screw-up by forcing his mouth open and sending a snake down his throat (this is, amazingly, even more awful than it sounds). You keep wishing, actually, that the film would give Claudio more screen minutes, mainly because Curtis can be unnerving and fascinating at the same time, but here, his mission is pretty clear: encourage viewer sympathy for Gordy, then get out of the way.

At one point, Gordy learns that Claudio has his own reasons to be bitter, that his child was “collateral damage” of a U.S. assault, and so, perhaps the two men are not so different after all (or at least this is a story he hears, and given the propensity that all Gordy’s acquaintances show for lying, maybe it’s simply not true). Yet, whether or not Claudio has suffered his own (personal or community) pain, there’s never a doubt that Gordy should be beating the bejesus out of him, or, in one crowd-pleasing scene, biting a henchman’s ear clean off. This despite the fact that the movie is, ostensibly, about the pain and suffering caused by “collateral damage.” Or maybe, as Schwarzenegger tells, the film is about the dilemma presented by terrorism: “You can’t fight terror with terror. America has tried that in the past, and it has created a cycle of violence that has nations hating you and looking to pay you back.”

Like they say, payback is a motherfucker. The solution that Collateral Damage comes up with is distinctly Arnoldian: total annihilation. Gordy heads off to Colombia and terrorizes the terrorists, or at least he does until U.S. forces show up with choppers and shoot missiles all over the place: “Keep shooting, says Brandt from under his helmet, sounding just a little Kurtz-like. “Kill everyone!” At this point, Gordy has been making trouble for the CIA, which means he’s potentially going to be turned into “collateral damage” himself. “With any luck,” smirks CIA Agent Brandt (Elias Koteas), this gadfly will be found “dead on the side of the road somewhere.”

And in case you’re thinking in something resembling practical terms, that, say, the Fireman might better leave this work to “experts,” rest assured: no one else can do it. A Senate Intelligence Hearing cuts funding for anti-terrorism activities in Colombia, because Brandt’s team hasn’t gotten the job done (the Senate is feeling particularly beset because Gordy’s story is all over the news). And so, Gordy is not only driven not only by a personal desire for vengeance, but also by patriotic zeal that can be shared by everyone even vaguely annoyed at their government for not doing its job. He means to set the world order straight, to provide that “end in sight” that everyone “wants to see.”

The route to this end is slightly complicated by a couple of sensational stunts (including a leap off a waterfall recalling another of director Andrew Davis’s action pictures, The Fugitive) and a few offbeat characters. These include a chatty Canadian expatriate (John Turturro) whom he meets in jail and holds a precious pass to the Guerilla Zone, and Felix (John Leguizamo), a wannabe hiphopper who wears a Metallica T-shirt and runs a cocaine manufacturing operation in the Zone. (You may pause to wonder how come Turturro and Leguizamo appear in these little roles, playing sort of comic sidekicks to the durably macho Gordy, but then again, you may not.)

Most importantly, on the way to his very own “heart of darkness” (traveling upriver, hitching rides on various boats), Gordy encounters yet another helper, the mysterious Selena (the Italian actor Francesca Neri, whose first U.S. picture was Hannibal). She comes equipped with a beautiful little boy, Mauro (Tyler Parker Garcia), who can’t talk, who is, in other words, as symbolically innocent and pure, as close to angelic, as he can possibly be. He takes a liking to Gordy, who is soon saving the boy from a series of perils, from Colombian terrorists and the U.S. military.

It’s in this relationship that the strange but predictable hysteria of Collateral Damage emerges. As Mauro finds in Gordy the perfect protector, it’s hard not to be reminded of Sarah Conner’s description of the best father for her son John: “The Terminator would never stop…. of all the would-be fathers who came and went over the years, this thing, this machine, was the only one who measured up. In an insane world, it was the sanest choice.” Of course. The Fireman will always be back (for instance, in True Lies 2 and Terminator 3, both due out next year). And so, Collateral Damage, so exciting, absurd, and seemingly endless, finds an end in sight, after all.