I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Collateral Damage

tn_collateraldamageAfter revisiting THE RUNNING MAN I decided it would be a good time to catch up on a more recent Schwarzenegger movie I had skipped before.

COLLATERAL DAMAGE is a dumb movie, and not the good kind of dumb. On paper it sounds like it has a zeitgeisty post-911 exploitation revenge premise, but it completely fails to deliver on that premise. It supposedly (according to director Andrew Davis in the DVD extras) means to subvert expectations by having a hero who saves lives instead of takes them, but that point gets muddled too. It’s not a good action movie and it sure as shit doesn’t come across as an effective drama about war, terrorism, interventionism, the cyclical nature of violence, or intercontinental travel.

Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, fireman. One day he’s going to pick up his wife and kid, gets there a little late, but just in time to see them get blown up by a terrorist attack. (If you ever see your family from a distance and you’re all smiling and waving lovingly as you approach each other, that means they’re about to be killed so be careful.) He sees the guy responsible (Cliff Curtis, American authority figure in LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD, Colombian terrorist in this one) disguised as a motorcycle cop, so various FBI and CIA types question him and he gets an inside look at the investigation.

mp_collateraldamage1Brewer (or “the fireman” as most people refer to him in the movie) wants the terrorists killed, but an asshole CIA guy (Elias Koteas) can’t get the politicians excited for a war. So Brewer decides to take international law into his own hands. By the time a friend-of-a-friend who was a military advisor in Colombia comes over to talk to him he’s already turned his house into a headquarters with maps and articles all over the walls. He gets himself a fake passport, sneaks into Colombia through Panama, and tries to track down the motherfucker who blew up his family.

If this had come out before 9-11, it would’ve been a fun action/revenge premise. It came out in February 2002 though, so for an American it was impossible not to think of it in a little more real world terms, like, what if your loved ones were killed at the World Trade Center or the Pentagon and you decided to track down Osama bin Laden yourself? Kind of ridiculous and pandering to our base emotions but that’s okay, it could still work. Unfortunately, any satisfaction you would expect to get out of that premise, don’t expect to get it. He gets to Colombia and has a series of travelling mishaps, such as a silly waterfall drop with made-for-cable level CGI. turturro1He runs into John Turturro, a Canadian helping the guerillas who decides to help him instead, and John Leguizamo, who wears a Metallica t-shirt. He gets locked up for a while. He stops the mugging of a pretty lady and her son, who turn out to be the terrorist’s wife and adopted kid. They made tough-guys-starting-their-own-international-conflicts movies like this in the ’80s, like UNCOMMON VALOR for example, and those might’ve been silly but they sure seem  realistic compared to this. And more entertaining.

The screenplay deflates the whole revenge angle pretty much right when he gets to Colombia, because “El Lobo” (yes, the terrorist is called El Lobo, because it’s the only Spanish word everybody knows besides “gracias,”  – and then they still gotta call him “The Wolf” most of the time just to be safe) finds out right away that “the fireman” is here, and is happy about it because he can use a hostage. Isn’t the whole idea of this fantasy that terrorists kill his family, he feels helpless, but he actually says fuck it, goes through all the trouble and danger to travel across the continent, break the law, sneak in, defy death, track this motherfucker down and then when they come face to face shouldn’t the guy’s reaction be “what the– how the fuck did– but you’re not supposed to be– ?” Or at least “Who the fuck are you!?” This movie is not interested in that.

The Fireman does get a chance to talk to El Lobo and exchange points of view. He fails to kill him but at least gets to bite off a henchman’s ear, that’s pretty cool. Then El Lobo goes back to Washington for another bombing, so he just has to follow him back. He does bring El Lobo’s wife and kid with him, that’s pretty funny. They go willingly and just act like they’re his family.

There’s a plot twist that doesn’t make much sense, and the climax is a pretty half-assed chase. He gets to use a fire ax as a weapon, which is a plus. He also uses it to puncture a gasline. It’s always disappointing to see employees of the fire department intentionally causing fires, but at least this guy’s not on the clock (unlike Van Damme in SUDDEN DEATH).

There’s alot of recognizable faces in the cast. In addition to the people already mentioned they also got Harry Lennix (Aaron from TITUS) as a cop and Jane Lynch (from Christopher Guest movies, 40 YEAR OLD VIRGIN, ROLE MODELS) in a non-improv role where she gets her neck snapped.

At the time this came out the title kind of bothered me. We were in Afghanistan and it was obvious that Iraq would be next. “Collateral damage” is a military term for innocent civilians that get killed in war, so I thought it was kind of sleazy to use it for an action movie that’s not even exactly about that. Now it doesn’t really bug me, but it doesn’t make much sense either. The way they get the term into the movie is that a spokesman for a group sympathetic to the guerillas says on TV that the deaths of his wife and kid are unfortunate but “collateral damage.” That part was five alarm bullshit because no way there is some “spokesman” who comes on TV right after a terrorist attack on American soil and is given the opportunity to defend the terrorists.

(It does lead to the most satisfying part in the movie, when Brewer pulls a Buford Pusser on this political committee’s office and they don’t know what hit them.)

Maybe part of the reason this movie is so bad is because it was actually made before 9-11. It seems like it’s made to exploit it but apparently they were finishing it up in September 2001. It’s funny that the hero is a fireman and you even see him drinking out of an American flag mug – it seems like such blatant pandering, but it’s just a coincidence. They were dealing with trying to make a Schwarzenegger movie when he was getting older and his style of action movie was getting replaced. They didn’t know they were also gonna have to face a changing world where this type of scenario would be held up against current events and be shown for how phony it is.

As far as dealing with Schwarzenegger’s age, that’s a small problem of its own. Personally I like to see how action heroes change as they get older, but I guess alot of people just want them to stay 25 forever. So poor Arnold is all painted up to try to look perfect. The color of his hair and eyebrows look fake like a behind the scenes shot of a dummy from T2 or TOTAL RECALL. I wish they’d just let him get grizzled and Eastwoodesque, that would be a sight to see. Anyway, this is not one of his better characters, but I did appreciate the fact that he got to do some emotional expressions once or twice. The look on his face right after losing his family is actually pretty good acting I think.

Davis was a great director at the time he did ABOVE THE LAW and UNDER SIEGE, then he got a best director nomination for THE FUGITIVE, then he fizzled out. He used to really create a sense of place with all the sound and these great shots of the locations, and he’d put a little bit of subtext into a solid action movie. I guess that’s what he’s trying here but it just fails, and there are lots of awkward cuts and voiceovers that honestly remind me of some of the Seagal DTV movies. It just feels half-assed and incomplete and fails to really hit any of the beats it really needs to hit hard.

I can’t tell if he was really trying to make a thoughtful anti-violence action movie like he says, or if that was just some fooling-himself bullshit he made up for the DVD extras because it was that brief period when Americans weren’t sure how to feel about action movies after 9-11. But if he’s sincere then he didn’t really pull it off. Like many great action movies (including UNDER SIEGE) there’s the scene where you find out the hero and villain have alot in common. El Lobo was a regular guy who became a guerilla because of the death of his daughter, sort of like The Fireman becoming an avenger because of the death of his wife and son. So you got your all important Villain Point-of-View established, but they seem to forget about that when his wife has to make a change of plans and leave her son behind in a building that’s gonna blow up. You think “Oh man, that’s cold-hearted” but then her escape plan is to hop on the back of a motorcycle – I don’t see no sidecar for the kid. And dad doesn’t say anything. I guess I could interpret this as a demonstration of how the quest for revenge has caused them to lose track of what they cared about in the beginning, but I don’t think that’s what the screenwriters meant, I think they just got lazy.

It does lead to an unintentional laugh when Schwarzenegger seems to claim their son as his own at the end. He killed the bad guy so he gets to keep any surviving family members. I’m not sure the courts would agree but everybody at the scene seems to think it’s okay.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, May 13th, 2009 at 1:32 pm and is filed under Action, Drama, Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

21 Responses to “Collateral Damage”

  1. The best thing I can say about this movie is, that it made Arnold look very smart in a post 9/11 interview. Maybe you remember that after 9/11 lots of Hollywood producers, directors, actors, etc. talked about never making action movies again. And while seriously everybody seemed to agree with that, it was ARNOLD who didn’t play the political correctness card and said what everybody thought in an interview. He said that every violent action movie that was now postponed because of what happened (including Colleteral Damage), will hit theatres in less than 6 months and it won’t take any longer till Hollywood will make gratiously violent movies again and they will make lots of money. And that’s what happened. (Well, I think Colleteral Damage didn’t make that much.)
    And Andrew Davis is seriously hit or miss. His follow up to this movie, an actionless kids movie named ‘Holes’, with Sigourney Weaver, Jon Voight and Shia LaBeouf, turned out to be very good IMO.

  2. Hate this movie. The only part I enjoy is when Arnold goes to the (CIA’s?) office and has a crazy tirade. “You want your collateral damage? I’ll give you your fucking collateral damage!” and he smashes up the office.

  3. Don’t forget the other Andrew Davis movie in that period, The Package. It was a fun thriller with Gene Hackman and the Davis ensemble, including Dennis Franz and Tommy Lee Jones, in Chicago (and other Davis trappings).

    Not a fan of Collateral Damage myself, though not all late Arnie pics are bad, both Eraser and The 6th Day are a lot of fun (especially Rodney Rowland the Stephen Dorff lookalike getting killed repeatedly). It has too many slow parts and not enough death. But hey, it’s Arnie, still glad I watched it. A couple of times. Okay, I suck.

  4. Yeah, – HOLES is truly an amazing film, and Andrew Davis should have been up for an Oscar, no joke. It’s actually REALLY similar in tone and structure to “The Hours”, believe it or not, and Shia Lebouef’s performance is loose/natural/improvisational in a way that he’s been trying (and failing) to recreate ever since. He’s so good it’s almost like hidden cameras just caught him when he wasn’t trying to act. (I think this performance is the one that got him the Indy 4 job).

    On a side note, I love how on the DVD, Shia is talking about how he loves all the Andrew Davis films and how they have that “Andrew Davis flavor” to them. I guess his parents were OK with exposing young Shia to Zagon getting his arm snapped and Strannix getting his eye poked out.

  5. Yeah, I rented this right after it came out (on VHS no less) and I can hardly remember a goddamn thing about it. Except that I didn’t really dig it at all. I was a big fan of the late 80’s/early 90’s Andrew Davis stuff too, and of course loved me some Arnie carnage, so I figured this would be at least moderately entertaining. But I just couldn’t get into it. And I actually thought The 6th Day would be stupider but was more what I thought CD would be: Not great by any means, but a decent amount of fun with some cool FX here and there, plus the action wasn’t that bad at all. I’ll watch a bit of that here or there if I find it on TV (most likely TNT, I bet) and enjoy it for what it is. CD, on the other hand, more or less don’t give a fuck. Which disappoints me.

  6. Good point , Vern. Arnold has a greater acting range in some of his worst movies , like this and End of Days , where his character is really a sad and desperate man , and I think he is able to pull it off. Not nomination material , but I was surprised!

    Not really interesting fact: Valeria Golino , the wife of the terrorist , in Italy is a very serious actress , only appearing in little minimalistic movies and serious dramas.She’s one of the best working today.Her international roles ? This , Escape from L.A. and Hot Shots!

  7. This movie is pretty bad, but all Ahnuld movies from the ’00’s are bad. Hell, gotta go back to True Lies pretty much. But I do remember a crazy scene where they shove a snake down someone’s throat. I hate snakes like a muthafuck, so that scene freaked me out a bit. Otherwise, yeah, pretty bad.

  8. Now, its been a long time since I watched this and it was pretty forgettable anyway, but the one thing I have a concrete memory about regarding the movie is that I think John Leguizamo raps at one point, which to my knowledge is his longest post-“the Pest” on-screen rap/poetry recitation.

    As for the movie, its an awful waste of a great cast in tiny pointless roles. Arny should have quit after “the Sixth Day” which was his last really watchable (starring) film. And how do I get one of those “Gravatar” pictures?

  9. Great Unwashed

    May 13th, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Ah, Cliff Curtis, man of 101 ethnicities.

  10. Camilo_palabra

    May 13th, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Hey Vern I´m actually from Colombia and to tell you the truth I hate this kind of movies, it shows how much ignorance and “caricaturization” of a culture (besides USA) can a bad hollywood movie make. My favorite part of the review was when you said “”El lobo” becauses that´s the only word they know”. absolutelly rigth my friend. for me, being a Colombian it´s pathetic when you see some “colombian” in screen that speaks like a mexican (believe me, there is a lot of difference in the pronuntiation), or when they show “Medellin” (a city of 2 million habitants) as a god forsaken ranch in the mountains, or some fake “gringos” spanish speakers, you just shake your head and say “why?” I know USA has all the nukes and wall-street and GI. Joes and that sort of shit, but if they dont know how to minimally learn about a culture before doing a stupid movie like this maybe then, they will get some respect from the world, and maybe -just maybe- the world can be a less fucked-up place. We need less “Ellis”, and sadly,
    Ellis are everywhere, even making movies.

    cheers.

    Camilo

  11. Yeah , I want a gravatar-thing too!

  12. The idea of a fireman without tactical/martial arts/whatever training, going on his own revenge-fueled mission to Colombia, isn’t a bad idea. A guy out of his depth, but keeps on going and pushes his own limits to both survive and get what he wants…I mean why not?

    But that concept is murdered once Arnold signed on. He’s the Terminator, the dude who defeated Predator, guy who is CONAN, you get the picture. We expect him to kick ass, blow shit up, quip one-liners, etc. Totally inappropriate for this role, but whatever.

    Now if a Dennis Quaid, or someone we at that time in 2002 didnt associate with action cinema had played the part….it could have worked.

    But Vern, you’re right about Andrew Davis. What the fuck happened to him? He seem to go to hell starting with CHAIN REACTION. Sad since Davis did some good shit in the late 80s/early 90s….hell Vern, you should review his solid thriller THE PACKAGE with Gene SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE Hackman and Tommy Lee MAN OF THE HOUSE Jones.

  13. To get the “gravatar” go to http://www.gravatar.com. It’s pretty simple because even I figured out how to use it. Just make sure you use the same email you use for your comments here.

    Sorry, not sure how they got so big all the sudden, they used to be tiny. Looks good when everybody has the pictures but not when it has that stupid logo.

  14. You forgot one more important Valeria Golino role: love interest to Paul Reubens in “Big Top Pee Wee!”

  15. M. Casey : I don’t know anything about that one , but from the poster it looks fantastic! What’s the meaning of a “Pee Wee”? Something about piss?

  16. Thanks for the tip, Vern. By the way, while we’re on the subject of Arny, I always make sure to include a link to his legendary Brazil travel video, which is every bit as wonderful as you might imagine it is.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uerFZ2Z42nc

    Watch it and understand the mysteries of the universe.

  17. CallMeKermiT,

    Well, it’s a bit complicated. Pee Wee Herman is this man-child character played by Paul Reubens. He started in comedies aimed at adults, and then at children. He was caught jerking off in Florida and his television show was canceled.

    Big Top Pee Wee was filmed during the decline phase of his career (though the Tim Burton directed PEE WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE should not be missed). If I remember correctly Ms. Golino played a circus ringleader’s daughter. And there was something about sandwiches.

  18. Arnold Shwarzenegger is… Collateral Damage

  19. Thanks Casey , I didn’t know that. I figured , a movie with “pee” in the title , must be some kind of slapstick comedy with fart jokes and fat suits. Still , a strange choice for a mostly dramatic actress!

  20. Shit, totally forgot Andrew Davis directed “Holes.” Its a pretty competent effort, which balances an ensemble cast and multiple timeframes fairly eloquently. Huh.

  21. Vern, have you seen Andrew Davis’ The Guardian, with Costner and Kutcher? It continues his theme of action heroes and scenes based around saving lives, not taking them. Actually decent movie, lots of impressively put together, intense rescue missions with huge waves and explosions. It fits into that category of film Vern talks about where there is nothing original about any scene or character, but it’s put together really well with strong performances and scenes and whatnot.

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