"I'll show you collateral damage!"
O how the mighty have fallen. Throughout the 1990s, Arnold Schwarzenegger could hardly stop the hits from coming, as he featured in masterpieces like Terminator 2, Total Recall and True Lies. Director Andrew Davis, meanwhile, garnered critical and commercial success with The Fugitive, and went on to pursue other projects. It's a shame, then, that Collateral Damage - an Arnie/Davis collaboration - is a failure from practically every angle. Collateral Damage was originally scheduled to hit theatres in October 2001, but was delayed several months following the September 11 terrorist attacks. See, Hollywood had a sudden crisis of conscience regarding the depiction of violence in films, specifically terrorist-related violence. Too bad the movie wasn't scrapped entirely instead, as this is a second-rate, unremarkable and frankly dull revenge flick.
The term "collateral damage" is a military expression which refers to the innocent bystanders who are accidentally killed during military actions. The Schwarzenegger role here is heroic fireman Gordy Brewer, whose wife and daughter are killed in a terrorist bombing (the collateral damage of the title). The man responsible is a Columbian terrorist known as El Lobo, or "The Wolf" (Curtis). Upon discovering that the U.S. government are unable and unwilling to bring El Lobo to justice, Gordy sets off to Columbia to track down the nutcase and distribute justice himself. That's literally it.
Apparently, this lone, completely untrained fireman can effortlessly track down El Lobo, fight for survival against soldiers, and pull off what billions of dollars and hundreds of armed military men were unable to do. Meanwhile, Gordy also survives a leap off a waterfall, and pretends to fix a generator while secretly rigging an entire cocaine factory with explosives (don't the guards have eyes?). Of course, any Arnold Schwarzenegger movie requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief in order to enjoy the ride, but Collateral Damage is not a fun ride. It takes itself far too seriously, and in the process denies viewers the pleasures associated with Arnie vehicles. The pace is far too sluggish as well. The first hour is devoted to repetitious set-up and exposition, and when the action at long last arrives it's not as energetic or as satisfyingly violent to justify the wait. Heck, Arnold never even picks up a gun - it's basically him pounding on the enemies he encounters until they are subdued. This stuff is hardly exciting. It would be a monumental effort for someone to survive this film without stifling at least one yawn.
Clearly, Collateral Damage was intended and designed to function as a type of treatise on terrorist violence, as questions are raised regarding the definition of "terrorist". By and large, this type of stuff is interesting in a post-9/11 climate. Problem is, the rote narrative is of the straight-to-video variety, and the movie tries to appeal to the action buffs through the presence of Arnie. It's a glorified B-movie with big aspirations, and it tries so hard at its aspirations that it forgets its purpose: to entertain. The dialogue is constantly flat, and the film plays out in such an obvious manner that a predictable twist towards the film's end only highlights how dull the movie had been up to that point.
One of Arnold Schwarzenegger's best attributes during his Commando era was that he never took himself too seriously. In Collateral Damage, unfortunately, he's never allowed such levity. His charisma is muted and the tone is downbeat and serious, with absolutely no opportunities for witty one-liners or sly winks. This is a grim, humourless affair, and Schwarzenegger is a lifeless automaton going through the motions. Arnie has a formidable screen presence, but he is unable to act. Attempts to portray Arnie as a different kind of action hero with dark motives and deep internal conflicts are doomed to failure. After all, the sole reason viewers will happily tolerate Arnie's bad acting is to enjoy the ride. What's there to like without the fun? A more solid actor in the leading role could have improved this film.
The supporting cast, meanwhile, is comprised of good actors who aren't given a great deal to do. The two Johns - John Leguizamo and John Turturro - are given thankless cameos with no more than 10 minutes each of screen-time. Why did these guys even bother to star in the film? Also, the casting of New Zealand actor Cliff Curtis as El Lobo is problematic, because Curtis doesn't look even remotely Columbian. The rest of the cast submit unremarkable work, and seem to be here just to make Arnie look good.
Judged purely as a piece of popcorn cinema, Collateral Damage only barely passes muster despite a few skilful moments. None of the action scenes are particularly exciting, the storyline is dull, and the overall impression you'll be left with is "blah". The movie takes itself far too seriously, as if it were making a statement about the realities of terrorism, instead of playing out like the fantastical comic-book adventure that it is. With no Arnie one-liners or memorable Arnie action, Collateral Damage is utterly drab. Would Collateral Damage have been considerably superior if it featured more of the Austrian Oak kicking ass? Probably not, but it wouldn't have hurt.