LOS ANGELES, July 29 (UPI) -- Ironically, one of the minor bits of collateral damage from the World Trade Center attacks was the action movie
"Collateral Damage," in which Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fireman who vows revenge on the terrorist who killed his wife and son. It is coming out Tuesday on DVD ($26.98 list) and VHS ($22.98).
The film's October, 2001 theatrical release date was postponed until this February. After all, reasoned all the Hollywood smart money, in the wake of Sept. 11, the public couldn't possibly be interested in such primitive emotions as getting revenge on terrorists.
Upon finally being released, though, "Collateral Damage" proved instead to be not raw enough meat for the public's new mood. The terrorist turned out to be not Middle Eastern, but a cocaine-financed Colombian guerrilla who is blowing up targets in America to persuade us to abandon Colombia's government. And the script treated the Colombian civil war and America's role in it with too much ambivalence to satisfy an audience that had developed a strong taste for "moral clarity."
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. They 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 guerrillas' 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, but also that there is a world of trouble out there and that America should thus be prudent about picking more fights.
So, the film made $40 million at the box office, despite an ample budget of $85 million. Nonetheless, for a movie that remains within the bang-bang-boom-boom 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.
During his glory years, Arnold faithfully followed Ross Perot's advice to surround oneself with more talented colleagues. 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-guerrillas.
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 theater, 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 sees his career moving, he informs Arnold, 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.
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 killed, 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.