Directed by Andrew Davis
Expectations: I remember wanting to like this, but being disappointed.
Collateral Damage isn’t a bad movie, but the potential of the premise is not fully realized. This disappointment stems directly from the film’s tone and its production year. See, the premise is totally ’80s action fluff — a father out for vengeance in the jungles of Columbia — but the execution is pure early 2000s when tones had darkened and reckless fun had all but vanished from action movies. There are times when the film seems to forget what year it is and have fun with its dumb plot (mostly in the 3rd act), but it never does it enough to get into that sweet spot of entertainment. I love Arnold, so I still enjoyed it greatly, but it is frustrating to see so much wasted Arnold-tastic potential.
Gordy Brewer (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a well-respected member of the firefighting team, loves saving people for a living. His job causes him to work odd hours, though, making the care of his son something of a juggling act between Gordy and his wife. One day Gordy agrees to pick up his son from a building downtown, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s the same building targeted by international terrorist El Lobo (Cliff Curtis). Lobo’s bomb kills Gordy’s wife and child, sending him on a one-man mission of revenge that will stop at absolutely nothing.
Placing Arnold into the role of a fireman immediately grounds the film in a very relatable, real-world struggle. He does some very heroic things in the opening firefighting scene, but it never feels as huge as the traditional actions of the Arnold on-screen persona. Basically, he feels like a real guy. This makes the believability buy-in different than other Arnold films; even the bazooka-totin’ explosive action scenes carry a different tone than they would with a different Arnold character. Arnold has such a physical presence that this type of everyman role is kind of rare for him, and so the choice feels purposeful.
Originally, Collateral Damage was to come out in October 2001, but it was moved because who would go see it then? Instead, it was released five months after the September 11th attacks. The filmmakers obviously had no way of knowing that a large-scale terrorist attack was in the planning stages while they were shooting, and in this case the more serious tone of the film works to their benefit. Terrorism is a broad, scary topic, aimed at making people live in fear. Depicting terrorism on US soil will forever be a tricky subject in a post-9/11 world. The ’80s style big-budget action movies with nationalist themes and muscled dudes saving the day just don’t have the same feeling. These gung-ho ’80s films were largely defined by the Cold War, but the threat of terrorism in the 2000s was too real and ever-present to be handled flippantly. In this way, seeing this complex, modern problem handled by an everyman with an axe and some know-how probably acted as catharsis for some.
While the tonal choice may have been correct for the times, that doesn’t mean Collateral Damage accurately depicts terrorism. I’m no counter-terrorism expert, but I do believe that hunting down an international terrorist is harder than just pissing off Arnold. I get that he’s mad about the death of his family, and I understand that he wants to get the guy who did it, but the ridiculous series of events that relatively quickly leads Arnold directly to the guy’s inner circle in the middle of the Colombian jungle is pretty impressive. This kind of naivety reflects a lot of the general American attitude I remember from the time. “What’s taking so long? Just go in there and kick their asses!” There also a part of me that imagines George W. Bush watching this in the White House screening room and thinking the hunt for Osama Bin Laden would play out similarly.
There’s a level of over-the-top action that’s expected in an Arnold movie (especially by this point in his career), but Collateral Damage doesn’t deliver in that regard. There are lots of explosions, jungle, and a pretty crackin’ 3rd act that ups the popcorn-muching quotient considerably, but it’s nowhere close to being at the level of Arnold’s classics. Once again, given the time and the circumstances, this was probably the right choice. But if a serious tone that respects real-world events and limited action are “the way to go,” then why is Collateral Damage ultimately so disappointing? Well, because it never really commits. It honestly attempts to be a serious action movie that deals with terrorism, but it’s overwhelmingly dumb at times and it never gives up on trying to be a typical Arnold action movie… so instead it just kind of lumbers along as neither.
That all being said, I do enjoy the action in this film, and it did manage to wrangle emotions out of me. I literally almost cried when Arnold was in the hospital, staring into space with a look of crushed, utter desolation after losing his family. The end of the film also made me think about the nature of counter-terrorism work. Most of the time, there isn’t a terrorist attack happening. If we limit our focus to just the US, there are even fewer instances. The ending of Collateral Damage made me consider that these moments of quiet nothingness, of everyday life, don’t necessarily mean that nothing is going on. While I write these shitty reviews, or you walk your dog, or whatever, someone’s working to stop a terrorist attack. It may not be a disgruntled fireman sliding down elevator cables and throwing axes in a sewer access tunnel, but someone’s out there doing the big work to make sure that nothing happens, and I have nothing but respect for them.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ll be checking out Arnold’s directorial debut: Christmas in Connecticut! See ya then!