LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- No movie release postponed during Hollywood's post-Sep. 11 funk elicited more sight-unseen sneers than "Collateral Damage."
It stars Arnold Schwarzenegger as a fireman hunting down the cocaine-financed Colombian guerilla who blew up his wife and son to terrorize America into abandoning Colombia's government.
This derision stemmed partly from the movie industry's spectacular failure to grasp the public mood after the atrocities. The bigger reason, though, was that Arnold hadn't made a good film since 1994's "True Lies."
Schwarzenegger's losing streak is now over. For a movie that remains within the stunt-driven conventions of the action genre, "Collateral Damage" is surprisingly strong, somber, and intelligent. It most resembles "Clear and Present Danger," the smart 1994 political thriller set in Colombia with Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy's CIA agent.
Here, Arnold isn't a superhero. In fact, he doesn't even have a gun. Instead, the heroic fireman must draw upon his repressed inner arsonist to fight the terrorists with fire.
David and Peter Griffiths wrote the script. (Yes, they are another brother act. To make it in the film biz these days, you must team up with a brother. If your parents failed to provide you with one, persuade them to adopt somebody.)
The Griffiths get the politics about right, illustrating how blurry the boundary can be between freedom fighter, terrorist, and gangster. They slightly exaggerate America's current role in the 38-year-old civil war, but they accurately depict some of the Colombian government's security forces moonlighting as brutal paramilitaries who terrorize the peasantry into betraying the guerillas' whereabouts.
This tragic realism about Colombia gives "Collateral Damage" a foreboding tone, rather like "Black Hawk Down." Both films suggest that honor demands that a fight once started must be finished. Yet, they also imply that there is a world of trouble out there and that America should thus be prudent about picking more fights.
The secret behind Arnold's improbable rise to superstardom -- despite his difficulties with both English and acting -- is that he would have been a success in just about any field he chose, as his accomplishments in body-building and real estate development suggest.
During his glory years, Arnold faithfully followed Ross Perot's advice to surround oneself with more talented colleagues (most notably, James Cameron of "Terminator" fame).
In "Collateral Damage," Arnold teams with director Andrew Davis, whose career has also been marking time recently. Still, Davis directed 1993's "The Fugitive," one of the few action films -- and the only movie based on a TV series -- to garner a Best Picture nomination.
The cinematography is gorgeous. And the lovely Mexican hill town of Xalapa stands in nicely for the sector of Colombia ruled by narco-guerillas.
Oddly, the biggest flaw in "Collateral Damage" is the one you'd least expect from Andrew Davis. Recalling "The Fugitive's" sonic assault on America's eardrums, I plunked myself down in the back of the theatre, but then had to move up because too much of the dialogue, especially John Turturro's lines, is muffled.
Turturro isn't the only talented supporting actor. Colombian-born motormouth John Leguizamo provides the comic relief as a cocaine kingpin who sees the drug wholesaling as just a day job. He hopes to see his career, he informs Arnold, moving more in the direction of rap superstardom.
As the terrorist El Lobo, Cliff Curtis continues his odd but impressive career alternating between playing Latin Americans (such as Pablo Escobar in "Blow") and Middle Easterners (such as the Iraqi rebel in "Three Kings"). In reality, Curtis is a Polynesian Maori from New Zealand.
There was a great inside joke about Curtis in "The Majestic." In the Jim Carrey-scripted B-movie within the movie, Curtis portrayed hammy 1950s actor "Ramon Jamon" who stars as "The Evil but Handsome Prince Khalid."
Elias Koteas looks like a cross between Robert Duvall and Harvey Keitel, and he brings some of their intelligent intensity to his nuanced role as a CIA agent. Arnold is repulsed by the counter-insurgency adviser's cruel tactics, yet appreciates that Koteas is the only U.S. official who fully shares his craving for vengeance on El Lobo.
Sophisticated, blue-eyed Italian beauty Francesca Neri (Alegra in "Hannibal") appears badly miscast as a simple Latin American villager who joined the guerillas because an American-advised death squad killed her daughter. Yet, Neri's incongruousness sets up a major plot twist that I, at least, never saw coming.
Supporting actors this articulate can make Arnold's line readings sound particularly clunky. Fortunately, he gets few lines and does most of his acting nonverbally. Particularly striking are the scenes of him in shock after his wife and son are murdered, where Arnold looks broken, old, and, yes, weak.
Rated R for language and violence, especially two pointlessly grotesque scenes in which Curtis tortures a man with a snake and Arnold bites a guy's ear off.