It’s impossible to discuss the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle “Collateral Damage” without mentioning the tragedies of September 11, which prompted Warner Bros. to postpone the film’s release for a few months. Given how it uses a stateside terrorist attack as its plot hook, the long, dark shadow of real life cannot help but loom over the film–and accordingly the reactions to it are certain to be more intense than if 9/11 never happened and the movie had been released in October as planned. From the critical perspective, notices in general will be harsh (even sanctimonious) to an extreme; on the other side, the film is guaranteed to be much more warmly received at the box office now, given the retribution-craving mindset of the masses.
Strip away the outside swaying sentiment, “Collateral Damage” falls somewhere in between. It’s throwback, formula Ah-nuld all the way, a straightforward and simple revenge thriller that more than likely would have made a fairly low-key and far more easily dismissed impression on critics and audiences alike pre-9/11. Yet while it certainly would not hold an aura of freshness in any climate, on the fairly unpretentious terms on which it operates, the film does what it sets out to do.
Schwarzenegger’s wronged hero is fireman Gordy Brewer, whose wife and young son are among those lost in a terrorist bombing in Los Angeles. Gordy is devastated, but–in true Ah-nuld fashion–not so much that he isn’t above looking to even the score with man responsible, known as El Lobo (Cliff Curtis). In short order, Gordy is on El Lobo’s trail in the terrorist’s homeland of Colombia, but anyone looking for Herculean Schwarzenegger antics won’t find them here. It’s a credit to director Andrew Davis and writers Ronald Roose, David Griffiths, and Peter Griffiths that all of Gordy’s derring-do is within the realm of ability for an average firefighter; he doesn’t suddenly become a firearms expert, for instance.
Nonetheless, it is of course a reach for such an average firefighter to succeed in tracking down the terrorist while government intelligence agencies don’t come close (then again, maybe not that much of a reach, but one nonetheless), but such are the contrivances one must be willing to roll with in Hollywood action films. And once one is able to accept that, “Collateral Damage” is a diverting popcorn entertainment. Davis, who’s run into some career turbulence in the years since 1993’s terrific “The Fugitive,” directs the numerous set pieces with workman-like skill and paces the proceedings at the right tempo, striking a comfortable balance of action and more plot-driven notes (the latter ones not always hitting the proper pitch, it must be said) while allowing for a few welcome and amusing beats of comedy (provided mostly by cameo players John Turturro and John Leguizamo).
But for all the decent craftsmanship behind it, there isn’t anything particularly distinctive about “Collateral Damage” except the timing of its release, which makes the film both highly relevant and incredibly dated–relevant in how it strikes closer to home than anyone could have imagined (particularly in the final turn the film takes as it heads into act three); and dated in how it reflects a time where terrorism on American soil was a far-fetched screen convention that only the likes of Ah-nuld ever had to worry about.