If it wasn't for an accident of history, "Collateral Damage" would have come and gone without much fanfare, notable only for Arnold Schwarzenegger taking a page out of Mike Tyson's book and biting the ear off a bad guy.
But because it concerns an average citizen whose family is killed in an act of international terrorism on American soil, the Andrew Davis-directed "Damage" received a degree of celebrity as one of the films whose release was postponed after Sept. 11. Seeing it now underscores the inevitability of that decision. Even today, watching a bomb go off among unprepared civilians in what looks like Century City is more disconcerting than it would otherwise have been.
Also unnerving, for similar reasons, are the film's realistic opening shots of Schwarzenegger as L.A. firefighter Gordy Brewer dealing with the darkness, the smoke, the screaming chaos of a major conflagration. While much has been made out of this being what one of the producers calls "a significantly different Arnold," that's not really the case. The Ordinary Arnold referred to lasts for about the blink of an eye before he reemerges as such an indomitable one-man army that not sending him into Afghanistan in search of Osama bin Laden seems a regrettable oversight. Schwarzenegger's Gordy would have preferred to stay that regular guy, a loving husband and involved father to a cute son with just the right number of missing teeth. But then comes that bomb blast outside the consulate of Colombia, an explosion that numbered his family among its nine victims. Even Hollywood couldn't imagine a body count as high as that of Sept. 11.
Quickly taking responsibility for the carnage is El Lobo (the wolf), the dreaded leader of Colombia's rebel faction (played by New Zealander Cliff Curtis). "We will bring the war to you," a video message from El Lobo eerily insists. "You will not feel safe in your own beds."
Distraught though he is about his loss, Gordy is willing to let the government, symbolized by renegade CIA agent Brandt (Elias Koteas), tackle El Lobo. At least at first. But hearing a smirking Lobo sympathizer talk about how those civilian casualties were nothing more than unfortunate collateral damage drives this even-tempered firefighter over the edge and turns him into a demon of revenge. "Your face has changed," someone says, and indeed it has.
Now more Terminator than Ordinary Arnold, Gordy gets himself to Colombia on a quest to personally dismember El Lobo. All kinds of people want him dead, and all kinds of obstacles--from trained killers to involuntary trips down enormous waterfalls--get placed in his way. It wouldn't be accurate to say Gordy laughs at these dangers--he's in far too sour a mood--but that's the general idea.
Gordy is even impervious to unimpressive acting from some of "Damage's" bigger names. Here's John Turturro as an expatriate Canadian mechanic--"a wrench for hire" is what he imaginatively calls himself--who briefly shares a cell with Gordy. And there's John Leguizamo as a wacky cocaine manufacturer--is there any other kind?--who is connected to the rebels. You meet such interesting people when you travel.
Given what he's been through, it's not surprising that the only thing that gives Gordy pause on his relentless quest for revenge is the plight of young mothers in the company of small sons. One that especially catches his eye is sylph-like Selena (Italian actress Francesca Neri, an object of Dr. Lecter's affection in "Hannibal"), who crosses Gordy's path so often it makes you think Colombia couldn't be much bigger than Larchmont Village.
As directed by Davis (who did the memorable "The Fugitive") and edited by Dennis Virkler and Dov Hoenig, "Collateral Damage" does a solid job with its action sequences and the David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths script takes a few random stabs at being of interest. Here's El Lobo, for instance, talking about how revolution plays in the U.S. of A: "When an American sees a peasant with a gun on television, he changes the channel. He never asks, 'What is a peasant doing with a gun?'"
"Collateral Damage's" heart, however, is not into radicalizing Gordy and turning him into a firefighting Che Guevara. The film's political philosophy, as much as it has one, is of the "a plague on both your houses" variety, painting the rebels and the CIA as equally fixated on killing innocent civilians for their own nefarious ideological ends. We've seen it all before, and we'll likely see it all again.
"In the struggle for liberation," El Lobo says, "there is no room for mistakes." Hollywood, however, is a lot more forgiving.
MPAA rating: R, for violence and some language. Times guidelines: the usual action smorgasbord.
Arnold Schwarzenegger...Gordy Brewer
Cliff Curtis...El Lobo
In association with Bel-Air Entertainment, a David Foster production, released by Warner Bros. Director Andrew Davis. Producers Steven Reuther, David Foster. Executive producers Hawk Koch, Nicholas Meyer. Screenplay David Griffiths, Peter Griffiths, story by Ronald Roose, David Griffiths and Peter Griffiths. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg. Editors Dennis Virkler, Dov Hoenig. Music Graeme Revell. Production design Philip Rosenberg. Art directors Richard Reseigne, Mark Fisichella. Set decorator Thomas Roysden. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times