In this day and time, if you're going to release a movie with explosions in a tower office building, where glass shatters and fire rages as frightened people rush the exits, where an elusive terrorist always slinks away to fight another day, then that movie better be pretty damn good. Apparently, that's not a distinction Warner Brothers understands. The powers that be apparently thought yanking their advertising post-Sept. 11 and slightly postponing the release date of this maladroit money grab would solve most of their problems. But the difficulties with Collateral Damage aren't due to an unthinkable twist of fate and cosmically bad timing. No, this movie is an embarrassment all on its own. The deal-killer is that, seen through the prism of a national tragedy, this movie's bad acting, ludicrous script and shoddy direction bring home that Hollywood venality we're always hearing so much about. Watching Collateral Damage, the first thought -- the only thought -- is that movies really and truly don't have to be high quality or clever or even interesting; they just have to promise box office. Schwarzenegger will get them in the seats, so why bother with anything else?
Los Angeles fireman Gordy Brewer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is a good man, or so we are meant to infer from an opening sequence that paints him as a risk-taking hero, even if the scene turns out to be only the dream of his worried wife. That's about all we see of Mrs. Brewer, as she and her son are directly dispatched by a bomb blast, innocent bystanders to a terrorist attack on the Colombian embassy. Brewer witnesses the horrible act and unknowingly momentarily comes face to face with its hard-to-pin-down perpetrator, a mystery man known primarily as El Lobo (Cliff Curtis).
It doesn't take long for the not-especially-bright Brewer to figure out that the government isn't going to take the action he most wants them to take, which is to hunt and kill The Wolf, and, boy, does he mean yesterday. So Brewer decides to do what most people in his position would do: go all commando, charge down to Colombia solo and whip some terrorist ass. At least Rambo's jungle training gave him a smidgen of credibility in the one-man-army department. Brewer is an idiot; granted, he's a really pissed-off idiot, but it's still a little hard to work up sympathy without a little more to go on than Schwarzenegger's constipated acting. (In his defense, Conan does seem to have mastered the art of the raised eyebrow followed quickly by the seething stare.)
Colombia is a free-for-all. If Brewer understands the political situation he's wandered into, then he's one up on the audience. When he and El Lobo finally meet, the terrorist muses that when Americans see a peasant with a gun on television, they change the channel without wondering why a peasant needs a gun. Perhaps this very valid observation would have a bit more heft if the simplistic script didn't embody the very dismissiveness it pretends to condemn, shifting quickly back to America and the really important business at hand, which is allowing Brewer his payback on home turf.
But geopolitics presumably don't matter so much when revenge is on your mind. Apparently, even minimum-standard moviemaking techniques don't factor in either. Early on, Brewer no sooner stumbles off the bus than he plunges into the forest to avoid some rather anonymous gunfire, a tiresome sequence capped off with a strangely familiar jump into a roaring waterfall (which director Andrew Davis also gave us in the overrated The Fugitive). It's not too often that a big-budget movie offers up special effects that would make Ed Wood proud, but if Schwarzenegger is flailing around in a waterfall, then those flying saucers in Plan 9 From Outer Space were the real deal. Really.
The plot plods, with every excruciating "twist" telegraphed well in advance. If Brewer seems dumb at the beginning of the movie, by the end he's an absolute lump. The action and fight sequences are dirty and low. In one, a restrained man is fed a live snake inch by slithering inch; later on, Arnold turns Mike Tyson and rips off a guy's ear with his teeth. My hero.
Judging from the audience at a recent screening, there are those among us who will respond to this movie. When one particularly hard-to-kill terrorist takes a hatchet to the heart, some guy down front actually yelled, "Suck on that." Right verb, wrong context, buddy.
At some point, someone should have pulled the plug on Collateral Damage, if not out of respect for the dead and grieving, then out of respect for the living, far too many of whom are going to fork out their hard-earned cash to see this sorry excuse for a movie.