At the risk of repeating the obvious, Collateral Damage, held from its original October release date after the terrorist attacks, feels dated in the post-September 11 world. But it would have felt passé and unnecessary regardless; it's the sort of film Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, and their ilk cranked out on a near-monthly basis when Reagan was President -- the kind with taglines like "They killed his family. Now he's gonna make them pay!" They were films designed to make you feel good about being American -- provided you didn't think too much about the realities of global politics. At best, such films were cinematic junk food; at worst, empty-headed xenophobia. Arnold Schwarzenegger is almost certainly not alone when he talks about the need for Americans to see a bad dude go berserk on terrorists on the big screen now, but director Andrew Davis's film has the worst sort of bad timing, reminding us not just of recent events we'd like to put behind us, but of like-minded movies that should also be forgotten. Worse yet, Schwarzenegger and Davis seem to think they're making a serious film, when it's little more than slight.
It's a nicely coincidental touch that Schwarzenegger plays a fireman named Gordie, and novel enough that he doesn't kill anybody with a gun or utter a hackneyed wisecrack, but the temptation was clearly too strong to unleash his übermensch tendencies. Though he takes a beating early on, watching his wife and son die in an embassy bombing carried out by Marxist, drug-running Colombian terrorists, it isn't long before he's striding through the jungles of Colombia as if on a Stairmaster.
Schwarzenegger appears to be taking acting lessons these days; if you can ignore the intrusively familiar accent, he has recently turned in some of his most credible work -- a trend that unfortunately correlates with a significant decline in the quality of the scripts he chooses. (Collateral Damage also sports some creaky visual effects for which there are no excuses, since Warner Bros. had four extra months to touch them up.) As the object of his pursuit, character actor Cliff Curtis commits the sin of being absolutely generic. We know he's evil, because he makes one of his men swallow a live poisonous snake and because he hangs pictures of Lenin on the walls. The oft-insufferable John Leguizamo, as comic relief, isn't terrible, and John Turturro steals a scene or two by impersonating Harry Dean Stanton.
Portraying the most believable character in the film is Crash's Elias Koteas, as a CIA agent making unsavory deals to try to protect the U.S. He's the one element of the movie that feels absolutely timely, embodying Dick Cheney's philosophy of recruiting unpleasant individuals who'll get the job done. Standing in stark contrast to that is the fictional White House's response to the first major act of foreign terror on American soil: "We must fight the temptation to make hasty policy decisions we might regret." Insert your own punch line here.