In the wake of the tragic events of September 11, two major film releases were postponed until the studios could figure out how to proceed with marketing and release. "Collateral Damage" (IMDb listing) was one of those films (the other, Barry Sonnenfeld's playful comedy "Big Trouble," debuts on April 5th). "Damage," completed and awaiting release long before 9/11, was once marketed as any Arnold Schwarzenegger film would be: A big, dumb action fest. Yet, after that fateful day, the film has undergone a makeover and is now being positioned as a patriotic call to arms. Still, the film remains a big dumb action fest. It's only now, with the picture using careless justification for this violent crud, that the film seems far more vile than it really is.
Gordy Brewer (Arnold) is a Los Angeles firefighter with a loving wife and son. When on a routine rendezvous to pick up his family, Gordy unknowingly comes across the path of The Wolf (Cliff Curtis, "Blow"), one of the most radical and destructive terrorist forces originating from Colombia. Planting a bomb at the Colombian embassy, The Wolf kills Gordy's family in the process. Filled with hatred and vengeance, Gordy decides to sneak down to Columbia to even the score when the U.S. government offers no comfort or assistance to the raging widower.
While "Collateral Damage" suggests its purpose now is to act as a vessel for our nation's fury, only the simple will fall for such a transparent marketing trick. "Damage" is the same old leftover meatloaf Schwarzenegger has been serving us for years now. It's a bloated, savage, cartoonish thriller that hasn't a brain in its body nor a breath in its soul. There is nothing, besides the broad outline of the terrorist subplot, that even remotely suggests an honest and truthful meditation on the current instability of our fragile planet. "Collateral Damage" is a plain old action film, and I would hate for anyone out there to be deceived into thinking it was something more deeply political than that.
When you get to the scene in which The Wolf sends a live snake down the throat of an officer who has failed him, then you might get a good idea that reality or even reasonable compassion has been sent out the window in favor of a good vs. evil cage match between Arnold and his latest adversary.
But don't get me wrong, Schwarzenegger can deliver the goods. It's only when in the capable hands of a director who understands how to mix the normal mayhem with something different do we get the Arnold films that will outlive us all ("The Terminator," "Total Recall"). For "Damage," Andrew Davis ("Chain Reaction," "Under Siege") has been selected to bring the battle to life. However, Davis is hardly a solid enough director for the job. A cold, often lifeless helmer, Davis brings his usual numbing touch to "Damage." Still coasting off his 1993 smash "The Fugitive," Davis is back to square one with his new film, as it treads familiar violent ground rather flagrantly and never bothers to rise above the action film staples that are now worn and rusty.
A better example of combining a relatively honest look at terrorism with big budget thrills can be found in Mimi Leder's 1997 actioner "The Peacemaker," a film that looks like "Citizen Kane" compared to "Damage."
An even more deadly sin that Davis commits is that "Damage" is rather boring, which is unusual for a film of this size and decibel count. The story seems inert, even though large leaps of faith are taken with the characters and the plotting. Davis offers no support to the film with his choice of focusing on explosions and sweaty faces. Even with some colorful casting (John Turturro and John Leguizamo appear briefly in the film) to spice up the dead-eyed Schwarzenegger, "Damage" left me checking my watch constantly, each time disappointed that the picture could never get going and mimic the very same breathless pace and tension that consumes the characters in the film.
Shot with colorless photography (the norm for a Davis production), "Damage" doesn't try to overcome its pedestrian ambitions. In this day and age of action films attempting to outdo each other in both technology and pace, the retro appeals of "Damage" aren't enough to cause a dent in the genre. More care should've gone into cautiously approaching the story, not just piling on the fireballs to appease the masses. Even Schwarzenegger is allowed to make a thoughtful film now and again.
It's evident right from the opening that "Collateral Damage" was never meant to be a deep mediation on terrorism, nor on patriotism. That I can live with. The fact that it never gets off the ground simply as an action film is what troubles me more. If they wanted to create a violent cartoon, they should've pulled out the crayons, because as a motion picture "Collateral Damage" is one notch above unwatchable.
Filmfodder Grade: D-