THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It would be hard not to think of Sept. 11 when watching Collateral Damage. This is an action movie that deals with terrorism on American soil. The villain is a terrorist (from Columbia, not Afghanistan) who coordinates the bombing of a big city building. The hero is a firefighter whose wife and son are killed in the attack. Originally scheduled to open last October, the movie was pushed back to avoid appearances of insensitivity following our national tragedy. A few thought the movie should never be released at all because of the eerie similarities to real events. My feelings were simple - toss it out there; those who are ready will come, while those who are not won't. Apparently, the folks at Warner Brothers had the same feelings, having now given the picture a wide release following months of intense focus group testing that suggested audiences were prepared for it.

A Columbian terrorist learns not to mess with Arnold Schwarzenegger in Collateral Damage
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, an L.A. firefighter who is scheduled to meet his wife and beloved little boy outside a high-rise complex. He arrives just in time to see a bomb detonate right outside the building, killing his family. A CIA agent named Brandt (Elias Koteas) tells Gordy that the bomb was planted by a Columbian terrorist known as the Wolf (Cliff Curtis). Gordy becomes frustrated when the government drags its feet in locating the Wolf, so he stalks through the jungles of Columbia looking for the terrorist himself. Eventually, of course, the two meet up, and I don't think I'm giving anything away by saying that Gordy exacts a very painful revenge.

When I first walked in to Collateral Damage, I was afraid the movie was going to hit too close to home. By the end, I had reached two inescapable conclusions. First, the events in the movie are too preposterous to be taken seriously. The film fits squarely in the tradition of other Schwarzenegger pictures like Predator and Commando. Yes, there are similarities to the tragedy of Sept. 11 and public enemy #1 Osama Bin Laden, but the focus is on fast-paced action and spectacular stunts. Aside from one brief shot showing the top floors of a skyscraper exploding, there is nothing here that I found particularly upsetting or emotionally wrenching. (For the record, that shot could easily have been excised without detriment to the plot.) Director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) delivers what Schwarzenegger's fans have come to expect: a mindlessly entertaining action movie.

My second conclusion was more important. Collateral Damage works on a level of wish-fulfillment. Right now, you'd be hard pressed to find an American who wouldn't like to travel to Afghanistan and personally put Osama Bin Ladin in a wooden box. Watching Gordy Brewer hunt down his terrorist enemy and kill him is undeniably cathartic. Sure, the script is riddled with plot holes big enough to drive a tank through. I ignored them, though, and fantasized that it was really possible for one guy to get this kind of revenge. I suspect that a lot of other moviegoers will similarly embrace the film's fantasy element. For five months, our country has felt helpless over what Bin Laden and his associates did. For two hours, I was able to fantasize that he could be hunted down this simply.

Is it fair to judge this movie in light of Sept. 11? Probably not, but that's life. The timing is so coincidental that, as I said earlier, it would be almost impossible not to view it terms of recent events. What I can say objectively is that the film delivers on the level of a Schwarzenegger action flick. The stunts are exciting and there are a few clever plot twists at the end. I also liked the star's performance as a tortured family man. While he'll never be a DeNiro or a Spacey, it's clear that Schwarzenegger has improved as an actor over the years. And you can absolutely believe him as a self-appointed executioner.

Now for the part of my review that is decidedly not objective: I felt a tiny bit better after seeing Collateral Damage. Mindless movies about terrorism are probably a thing of the past from here on out, and rightfully so. But right here, right now, we have a film that shows a terrorist mastermind paying for his actions. Just thinking about that possibility felt good. The similarities are coincidental, but why not take them for what they're worth? If you think you'd like this kind of catharsis, the picture is worth seven bucks. I say, put Arnie on a plane to Afghanistan now.

( out of four)

Collateral Damage is rated R for violence and some language. The running time is 1 hours and 48 minutes.

Return to The Aisle Seat