Should I Watch..? 'Collateral Damage'
What's the big deal?
Collateral Damage is an action thriller film released in 2002 and was directed by action film veteran Andrew Davis. The film tells the story of a LA fire fighter who witnesses the death of his wife and child in a terrorist attack and who then pursues those responsible in a quest for vengeance. The film stars Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elias Koteas, Cliff Curtis and Francesca Neri. The film was due for release in October 2001 but has hastily re-edited and the premier postponed until the following year in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington. The film received a fairly muted response from critics and the film failed to find much of an audience either with worldwide earnings of $78 million, below the estimated budget of $85 million.
What's it about?
Los Angeles is rocked by an explosion at the Colombian Consulate building which claims the lives of several Colombian officials, US intelligence agents and the wife and child of firefighter Gordon "Gordy" Brewer who witnesses the carnage. Shortly afterwards, a tape arrives at the US State Department from a masked man calling himself El Lobo (The Wolf) who claims responsibility for the atrocity, in retaliation for US repression of Colombia. CIA Special Agent Peter Brandt is reprimanded for the attack and all CIA operations in Colombia are halted. Brandt, meanwhile, returns to Colombia and meets up with paramilitaries in an attempt to locate El Lobo, a person they suspect is Claudio Perrini.
Back in the US, Brewer is frustrated that the US Government is slow to act in bringing El Lobo to justice. Despite being warned not to pursue a personal vendetta against the terrorist which would surely result in his death, Brewer sets off to Colombia anyway in an attempt to track him down and exact revenge. After being arrested for entering the country illegally, Brewer manages to escape in a prison break and learns that Perrini is planning another attack somewhere in the US...
Capt. Gordon "Gordy" Brewer
David & Peter Griffiths*
Release Date (UK)
5th April, 2002
Action, Drama, Thriller
What's to like?
For a film with Schwarzenegger in the lead and the man behind such classic action films as The Fugitive and Above The Law in the director's chair, you'd figure that Collateral Damage would be a highly entertaining blend of action sequences and taut thriller. But it isn't. That's not to say that the movie doesn't stand out from the myriad of other action films predicting a male revenge fantasy. It feels morally ambiguous, only really siding with Brewer when he uncovers the potential for another attack - up until that point, he's just an angry and bitter man who doesn't care what he has to do to avenge his dead family. At no point do we think he's going to attempt a citizen's arrest, he's going for blood and nothing else. Is this really the sort of hero we're supposed to cheer for?
The film isn't a total bust. Schwarzenegger does his usual thing during the action sequences but nothing we haven't seen before while Davis knows how to shoot action movies so the film doesn't lack of excitement. What it does lack is interest because I never found myself siding with Brewer on his one-man Death Wish-style quest for vengeance. Revenge is a fairly weak reason to motivate a hero and the film doesn't offer much else besides action and the grim realisation that all of this was for nothing.
- The film originally featured Sofia Vergara as a plane hijacker but these scenes were among many cut after 9/11 and she appears nowhere in the film at all.
- Vietnam veteran and anti-war campaigner Stan Goff briefly worked on the film as a military consultant. He later described the experience as one of the worst in his life and decried the film as "yet another guns and fire-balls, macho death-cult, fascist film-myth."
- Despite being set in Colombia, the film was actually shot in Mexico because Colombia was deemed too dangerous by the producers. The film was originally going to be set in Libya and comment on US foreign policy in the Middle East.
What's not to like?
Even taken as your bog-standard Schwarzenegger action flick, there are a number of issues which lessen the film's appeal. The man himself looks disinterested in proceedings and even the character feels flawed - despite losing his family, he only justifies it as an excuse to go commando in Colombia as though he's a barely suppressed Republican. The supporting cast do little besides reinforce stereotypes about Latin America and as much as Curtis is a good actor, he is a frightfully puny terrorist to pit against someone the size of the Austrian Oak which makes the ending of the film inevitable.
Most action films have some light relief from the carnage somewhere, whether its an almighty explosion that surprises even the characters or a pithy one-liner to drop just before or after the kill - something Arnold himself has done on many occasions. But Collateral Damage has no joy in it anywhere. When the ending comes, there is no sense of happiness in the story that unfolded. Instead, you reach the conclusion that nothing really changed - another guy could replace El Lobo as Colombia's terrorist-in-chief or seek vengeance on Brewer for wiping out their family and thus, the cycle of violence continues. It's unusual for an action film to get you thinking along these lines but frankly, there isn't much else to do during the film and its increasingly grim narrative. The film's like sitting underneath gathering clouds in your summer clothes, knowing that a sudden downpour is imminent.
Should I watch it?
Collateral Damage must surely go down as a missed opportunity for both its star and its director. The film is a joyless and predictable rampage through action movie cliché, led by an actor who looks disinterested and a supporting cast that looks out of place. Compared to something like The Matrix, this looks old-fashioned and out-of-touch despite the terrorism theme of the narrative being up-to-date. For me, this film is a strong Eighties throwback that doesn't feel as enjoyable as some of Schwarzenegger's earlier efforts.
Great For: Republicans, vigilantes, anyone who has never seen any action film before
Not So Great For: Colombia or its people, action fans, Americans overseas
What else should I watch?
Schwarzenegger was the star of classic Eighties action movies like Commando, The Running Man and of course, The Terminator. Even today, he is still regarded as one of the greatest action movie stars of all time even though he hasn't made a decent movie for a while now. Personally, the last really good film he starred in was James Cameron's True Lies, an action comedy about a superspy trying to keep his world-saving antics a secret from his wife played by Jamie Lee Curtis. Everything else since then, including sequels to The Terminator, has just been variations on a theme.
Of course, vigilante films have a long history in cinema from the various tales from the Old West to more modern stories like Dirty Harry and Taken. Death Wish sees Charles Bronson going after the scum of the streets in his own, lawless fashion while Walking Tall sees Joe Don Baker dispense justice with a handy piece of 2x4. And if you're looking to add a supernatural element, look no further than The Crow which is a wonderfully shot and almost poetic fantasy that sees Brandon Lee return from the grave to seek out those who killed his lover. Trust me, it is so much more than simply the film that killed Brandon Lee.
Questions & Answers
© 2018 Benjamin Cox