Archive for Wednesday, February 6, 2002

Collateral Damage’ takes its toll on audiences

(R) *

February 6, 2002

Following the assaults of Sept. 11, several movies bearing thematic connections to the event were shelved. With "Collateral Damage," a terrorist revenge fantasy starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the question remains whether Americans are now ready for a film whose plot hits so close to home. The answer: Americans are always ready for mindless, predictable trash.

Based on a screenplay (by David and Peter Griffiths) that feels like it was written 20 years ago, "Collateral Damage" is a tiresome mess that seems all the more inessential given the current political climate. The picture is a throwback to Arnold's early days of pure action roles, but without the self-referential material that made flicks like "Commando" and "The Running Man" such guilty pleasures.

The Austrian stars as Gordy Brewer, a decorated fireman (one more 9/11 reminder) whose career is second only to his wife and young son.

When his family is murdered by the least unexpected explosion in film history, Gordy goes on a quest for retribution. The CIA reveals that the responsible party is a Colombian rebel leader known as El Lobo (Cliff Curtis), or "The Wolf" as the movie repeatedly explains for the nine people in the U.S. who don't already know the translation. Armed with his biceps and perpetual glare, Gordy heads to the jungles of Colombia to track down the elusive Lobo.

The 54-year-old Schwarzenegger has always been effective when his supporting material is up to par. (It's impossible to envision pearls such as the "Terminator" series or "Predator" without his stalwart Teutonic presence.) In "Collateral Damage" - a phrase referring to the acceptable loss of innocent life when attacking an enemy - the star is actually quite subtle in his emotional reactions during the first act, avoiding the chest-pounding rage that made his scenes in the recent "End of Days" so hilarious. But as Schwarzenegger encounters one ridiculous fight/capture/escape after another, he seems to become increasingly uninvolved with the proceedings. Perhaps he is also unable to rationalize why the adversaries would want to continually keep him alive.

Along the way a few actors pop up and add some much needed spark to the picture. John Turturro appears as a perverse Canadian opportunist who sells his services to the rebels, and John Leguizamo portrays a hipster drug runner who fancies himself a rap musician. Italian actress Francesca Neri ("Hannibal") is reasonably compelling as El Lobo's sophisticated wife, even though from the look of her mouth it seems that the guerillas are trading in collagen rather than cocaine.

Unfortunately, most of these fleeting characters merely get in the way of the movie's bullets and explosions.

Director Andrew Davis (whose previous "A Perfect Murder" was much more slickly executed) tries for an "Arlington Road"-type switch ending - and at least this plot device brings some kind of intrigue to an otherwise simplistic confrontation. But it's the type of switcheroo that makes all the events that transpired before it crumble in retrospect. Any casual backtracking (wouldn't the rebels have recognized a key person during a crucial street scene?) will reveal this ploy to be as hollow and unconvincing as the rest of "Collateral Damage."

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