This is one dark film. Which may explain why it failed at the box office. In Collateral Damage, Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as Gordy Brewer, a Los Angeles firefighter who loses his wife and son in a terrorist attack. Firefighter, terrorism, innocent victims. Considering this movie was released in February of 2002, only weeks after ground zero in Manhattan stopped smoking, there is a strong possibility the film’s subject matter kept people away. Not only was terrorism a touchy subject back then, the 9/11 attacks were not completely over yet. Not as long as they were still clearing debris. That’s some bad timing. But it could have been worse. The original release date for this film was less than a month after the attacks. I wish I could say I was sympathetic to the plight of the filmmakers and everyone else involved in this project, but tough shit. A film flailing at the box office was the least of the country’s concerns back then.
As for the film, if a viewer isn’t offended by a tale featuring an everyday, mythological superhero American, and a fair amount of jingoism crossed with benevolent guilt, then this movie isn’t all that bad. This was the second to last film before Arnold retired from starring roles to run California, and like the last two before it, The 6th Day and End of Days, Arnold was not essential for the lead. That is, I can picture any one of this latter days trilogy having a different star. Tom Cruise could have fit right in as Gordy Brewer in this movie. Denzel Washington could have worked well in The 6th Day (don’t think for a second he wouldn’t have taken the job). Bruce Willis could have rocked End of Days. My point is, Arnold was no longer finding roles where the audience could point to it as a true Schwarzenegger movie. But, while the opportunity for him to shine seemed to be past, he could still carry a movie, as he did here.
Understandably, Gordy’s life has been ruined by the loss of his family. His grief, plus some intel gathered from some pretty lax FBI agents, leads him to head to the terrorist mastermind’s homeland in search of the wretch. That homeland...not in the Middle East, as one might expect. The bad guy is this one is a Colombian rebel by the name of Claudio Perrini (Cliff Curtis). After the attack in Los Angeles, Perrini has fled back home to the jungle, but Gordy is hot on his tail. Gordy’s plan? Infiltrate the rebel-held area of Colombia, find Perrini, exact revenge. If only everything in life could be so simple. But, Gordy isn’t the only person in town looking for Perrini. He’s being dogged by the CIA, led by the shady Peter Brandt (Elias Koteas). Is Brandt a good guy? Is he a bad guy? It’s hard to tell, but for a CIA agent working in Colombia, he has a strange aversion to the cocaine trade.
By this point in the movie, onscreen events swing back and forth from thriller to action and back again. It’s a subtle distinction, but one which studied viewers will be able to spot. And it makes sense, too. Director Andrew Davis had a pedigree in both action and thriller by the time he made this movie, having directed The Fugitive, and not one, but two Steven Seagal films.
This movie isn’t a seminal piece of work from Davis, but it was never going to be, not with a plot so silly and unrealistic. He did his job, though. The movie never gets bogged down in sentimentality, overbearing emotion, or slow pace. It’s filmmaking 101; never all that satisfying, but never enough to make a viewer stop watching. In the end, then, maybe it wasn’t the subject matter that kept people from flocking to see this movie. Maybe it was because, while not being a bad movie, Collateral Damage, like the two Arnold films before it, is just another anonymous film awash in a sea of Hollywood mediocrity.