Collateral Damage

Unapologetic clunker of a movie iceberg that sunk the Teutonic. Not so much Collateral as Critical damage for the big man.

Released in 2002, certified UK-15. Reviewed on 01 Aug 2003 by Craig Eastman
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Ever since True Lies, the words "I'll be back" have sounded increasingly more like a threat than a promise. Several clunkers in a row since that movie, most notably (and disappointingly) culminating in the cock-up comeback of End of Days, had left Arnholdt floundering like a fish on dry land, desperately trying to reconcile his ageing action techniques (and physique) with the increasingly demanding wants of the movie-going public. Someone somewhere had an idea. Let's get Arnie in a revenge thriller where he fights some terrorists who've killed his wife and child, only this time he's an ordinary guy and doesn't use guns!

Cor blimey guv'nor! A recipe for success if ever there was one. Big problem, then, that a certain Mr. O.B. Laden decided to blow up some office towers mere weeks before Collateral Damage was due to hit cinemas. Suddenly a hell of a lot of people found themselves in the same position as Arnie's on-screen persona, and the world quite rightly decided it could do without such a painful reminder. Some hasty re-shoots later (the opening of the movie originally involved a terrorist attack on a skyscraper, natch), Collateral Damage was eventually thrust upon a public who no longer desired Hollywood's glossy take on all-American retribution, and sunk accordingly out of the public conscience.

I was going to say it seemed quite a shame for Arnholdt, but I guess those events were even more so for the families of those killed in the 9/11 attacks. All the same, quite some spin was being put on the movie before those events to convince the public Arnie was back with a "grown up" action picture that would deal with contemporary issues affecting real people and without the fantasy element. Or any snappy one-liners either. It certainly sounded interesting enough, but unfortunately the nagging feeling at the back of everyone's mind was soon proven justified upon the movie's release; Arnie's action days are irreversibly over.

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Let me first say this; Collateral Damage isn't as irredeemably risible as I remember on first viewing, but it still falls waaaaay short of the mark. Essentially a ham-fisted Hollywood response to the US governments seemingly red tape-hindered attempts at bringing international terrorists to justice, it casts Arnie as a fireman of all things. After the usual "happy homelife" credits preamble that Hollywood now seems to believe we as viewers accept as reason to feel empathy for our soon-to-be shattered hero, off duty daddy Gordy Brewer goes to pick up his wife and son from the doctor's. Across the street important CIA dude and head of Colombian affairs Peter Brandt (Elias Koteas) is arriving for an intel meeting when top Colombian terrorist Claudio Perrini AKA 'El Lobo' (Cliff Curtis) sets off a rather nasty bomb that fails to eliminate it's target but (and ultimately more problematic for Perrini) succeeds in killing Brewer's beyatch and bairn.

Dusting off the 'distressed' look he first used in End of Days, a somewhat demoralised Arnie is taken to the hospital where he remains 'distressed' until a news report has him cotton on to the fact that he conversed with Perrini, who was disguised as a police officer, seconds before the bomb went off. Somehow making his way to a government facility where the police and CIA are reconstructing and analysing the crime scene, Brewer makes himself useful for about five seconds before being sent packing. Once home he is enraged by an interview on TV with one of Perrini's sympathisers who describes the death of Anne and Matt Brewer as "regrettable" but a case of "collateral damage". After busting up the offices of the interviewee's fund-raising group, Brewer has a chat over the phone with Brandt who tells him that due to diplomatic reasons resulting from the Colombian government's ongoing talks with the guerrilla factions, the US government won't be bringing Perrini to justice any time soon.

Further enraged by his own beloved country's impotence in such matters, Brewer decides the best course of action is to mosey on down to Colombia and bust a cap in Perrini's ass himself. Helped by a friend of a friend who served time in the military on manoeuvres in Colombia, Brewer checks out some guerrilla-related websites, flicks over to the National Geographic Channel and is hence forth set to deliver pain unto the perpetrators of his shattered life. The only way in is via Panama, so off Gordy goes, a man with nothing to lose about to fight a war in a country not famous for it's hospitality to foreigners.

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God love the man if he's not genuinely making an attempt at something a little more believable, it's just that it's only believable in the sense that Commando was more realistic than, say, Total Recall in that it was set on Earth instead of Mars. Never mind the fact the CIA have a camp mere miles away from the guerrilla zone and can't locate El Lobo and his crew, Gordy just has to buy a boat trip and a zone pass and hey presto; he's right on top of the bastards.

His trip South sees Gordy face a number of perils, first from the famous Colombian kidnappers who like nothing more than snagging foreigners, and then from the cops and the guerrillas, both of whom have caught wind of the heroic Mr. Brewer and his less than touristic intentions. Saved from El Lobo's men by some timely police intervention, Gordy has just enough time to befriend single mother Selena (Francesca Neri) and her young son before being whisked off to the crowded police cells of the local jail. It's in the slammer that he meets sleazy Canadian Sean Armstrong, who it transpires does freelance work inside the guerrilla zone as a mechanic for coke manufacturer Felix Ramirez (John Leguizamo). When El Lobo and his crew turn up to bust their comrades out of the slammer and leave the place burning to the ground, Gordy offers to free a trapped Armstrong only if he sells him his guerrilla zone pass. A quick explanation of what the fire will do to him before he dies convinces Armstrong to comply, and so Brewer dons the brilliant disguise of a vest and a Panama hat before sauntering merrily up the river to have a word in Perrini's ear.

To say Gordy's trip is stretching the imagination a little is something of an understatement. No sooner does he reach Colombia than he's being shot at by heavily armed kidnappers, falling hundreds of feet down waterfalls, picking fights with the locals and being thrown in the slammer, and that's before he even gets near the guerrilla zone. If you can swallow all that, and one supposes it isn't asking much by Arnholdt standards, Collateral Damage does at least pay lip service to one or two issues Hollywood normally neglects to mention.

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Pleasantly for once, and especially given the movie's timing in the aftermath of 9/11, the script refuses to paint the guerrillas as simply "bad men", rather explaining to an American public who are no doubt fed severely biased intel on the Colombian connection that they don't really have a right to be there. Unfortunately, and again the movie does pick up on this, in funding their activities the guerrillas do ship a hell of a lot of drugs into the States, and Brewer makes this point to Selena when he is captured by Perrini and it transpires she is his wife. It may be only a slight nod, but it is heartening to see an action movie suggest it's audience should do at least a little thinking.

Regrettably, before much time can be spent exploring the issue of who is to blame (and one suspects both sides are equally at fault), Brewer snaps out of it and remembers he's not there as an ambassador for his country, he's there to fuck Perrini right up for bombing his ball and chain. At this point the movie concedes to certain expectations and a lot of stuff starts blowing up. Steadfastly refusing to initiate circumstances that might harm innocent bystanders, Gordy unfortunately manages to do so by proxy when the CIA, using his presence as an excuse, rather spectacularly chop up the guerrilla camp with a mixture of helicopter mounted gatling cannons and incendiary rockets. Understandably pissed, Gordy has a word in Brandt's ear. Serena told Gordy that Perrini has left for Washington where he plans to detonate another bomb. Brewer discloses this intel to Brandt on the proviso that Serena and her son be granted citizenship of the United States, a demand Brandt happily concedes to.

On returning to Washington, something odd happens. Realising it wants to be an action movie, Collateral Damage is forced to make a decision; should Perrini die or merely be captured? After all, we've just been told he's not really a Bad Man at heart, so can he justifiably be killed off? It is the ending the public crave after all. The solution is to pull something of a rope-a-dope. It turns out Serena is in cahoots with her husband and the CIA have seen fit to take her to their intel station in Washington (doh!), where she attempts to set off a bomb that will wipe out plenty of top CIA brass, Gordy and (and here's the character assassination) her poor little son. Having foiled her plan, Gordy, and consequently we the audience, can now feel justifiably upset at Serena for fooling us so. She is now a Bad Woman who would let her son die, and we can forget all the Lies We Were Told By Her before. Thus the avenue is open for the Bad People to do lots of dying. In a tunnel.

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Collateral Damage tries so hard to be a 'proper' film with action bits in it that you wish you could pick it up, cuddle it whilst saying "there there" and put it snuggly to bed so that it can have nice dreams. Very much like the tepid Proof of Life with which it shares some similarities, it unfortunately feels stilted and wholly misconceived. The premise itself is jarringly stupid and reads like some particularly bad episode of Sally Jessy Raphael; "Colombians killed my I'm taking the law into my own hands!". Points are scored for having the good grace to portray the enemy's morals as ambiguously as possible for at least some part of the movie, but ultimately all kudos are lost by a blatant whitewashing of character in order that a condescendingly righteous ending can be tacked on.

It's perhaps interesting to note that in press interviews post-launch, Arnie suggested the film had much more hard-hitting action elements that were supposedly edited to make the movie more palatable in the wake of the Twin Towers affair. Whether or not a harder edge would have helped the film much is doubtful as it's flaws seem so largely irredeemable. Director Davis, whose career is something of a rollercoaster of highs and lows (imagine following up Under Siege and The Fugitive with Steal Big, Steal Little and Chain Reaction, ugh!) here doesn't so much hit a low as almost come off the rails. Utterly uninspired, which arguably was a fault with his handling of The Fugitive, here he has neither the compelling story nor outstanding performances from his cast that elevated that movie to excellence. Arnie is decent enough as the grieving father and husband, but so little time is spent reflecting on his feelings that one suspects his character might have taken the same course of action had it been his pet cat who came a cropper.

This movie more than many had the opportunity to break the Arnie mold, and that is after all what we were promised. What we get, however, is a film that steadfastly refuses to accept any of the numerous opportunities presented it in attempting to regenerate our beloved Arnie's status in favour of being utterly and apparently willingly below average in every respect. Someone needs to get Davis a shot of adrenaline, and after this clunker many might well be calling for an Arnie-sized body bag. Only T3 will tell if he leaves behind the movies on a high or a low. My money's on a mediocre.

From my island of objectivity, I grant this film 2 out of 5 Disko Units.

Andrew Davis
Cast list:
Arnold Schwarzenegger (Gordy Brewer)
Cliff Curtis (Claudio Perrini/'El Lobo')
Francesca Neri (Selena)
Elias Koteas (Peter Brandt)