5-Word 365 #213 – Collateral Damage

When I went to see The Dark Knight Rises last Sunday, one of the trailers was the new spot for The Expendables 2. I’ll admit I hadn’t been overly enamoured of the idea of this franchise until I saw the first one and realised what a great blast of mindless fun-splosions it was. The second looks like it could be even better, but seeing Schwarzenegger up there, ripping the door off a Smart car at 65 years of age, got me thinking about the tail end of his career pre-politics. Aside from the well-seen but widely disliked Terminator 3, his last leading role was the relatively less-seen…

Collateral Damage

Arnie, back in the jungle.

Ah-nuld is Gordy Brewer, a captain in the LA Fire Department. He lives in a nice house with a pretty blonde nurse wife and a cute son. He’s got the good life. One day, that is all taken from him when his family is killed by a bomb set off outside the Colombian Consulate building. The official investigation isn’t getting very far as the bomber has fled back to Colombia, so Ah-nuld does what Ah-nuld does best: sneaks into the country to kill the man who killed his family. Except, this isn’t the eighties anymore. Things get a mite more complicated than that.

So this is it. The most famous Schwarzenegger film that most people have never seen. Originally slated for release on October 5, 2001, it was understandably pulled and reedited after what happened three weeks before that, eventually beginning its theatrical run on February 8, 2002 instead. Watching it now, this far removed from 9/11, I can’t help but think it was delayed not so much because of the plotline and imagery of “terrorism”, but because of the way the terrorists are humanised in the flick.

This is not a film about black and white, right and wrong. It starts off that way, yes, but once Brewer starts his revenge mission a lot of the characters take the time to tell him how he and El Lobo (the bomber) are not so different. Both had community-minded jobs – El Lobo was a teacher before becoming a guerilla – and both lost their son in a bomb attack, which led to them taking up arms in a quest for justice/vengeance. On a larger scale, David Griffith’s and Ronald Roose’s script portrays the CIA-assisted Colombian soldiers in just as poor a light as the ACL guerilla army. When Brewer manages to get in-country, they seem to be fighting over which side gets to kill him first. Considering it’s set in Colombia, the closest Collateral Damage gets to a drug-lord character is John Leguizamo as Felix, the manager of a cocaine processing plant, and he’s the comic relief!

Oh, those wacky cocaine producers! They just want to be loved…

Despite the serious tone of the terrorism stroyline, there a few moments of humour sprinkled through the film, mostly of the fourth wall variety. My favourite is regarding Brewer’s nationality. While in Colombia, he is referred to repeatedly as “the American” or “the gringo”. Of course, Arnie is never going to pass for a Yank, but the gag comes when he tries to con his way into guerilla-held territory with a borrowed pass by pretending to be a German; he accomplishes this only by wearing a hat and calling himself Heinrich! Arnie is not the only cast member pretending (or not) to be from somewhere else though; we also get the Colombian terrorist/guerilla leader and his wife, played by Cliff Curtis (New Zealand) and Francesca Neri (Italian) and a Canadian mechanic who helps Brewer with a travel pass, played by John Turturro doing a typically scene-stealing cameo.

After a career of playing robots, soldiers and cops, this might be the closest I’ve seen Schwarzenegger come to really acting. The whole point of the movie is that Brewer is not a superman. He’s not a fighter or a master of the one-liner; he’s a man who has had his entire life ripped violently away from him. He actually gets his ass handed to him more than once and, particularly in the first half hour or so, he needs to play real vulnerability and grief. There is a brief sequence just after the first attack where he is clearly in shock about what happened, and I was a little surprised by how affecting he was. This isn’t just another show up, say the line, do the grin, shoot the guy role. Bennett is not letting off steam.

I bet he wouldn’t mind letting off some steam with her though! (fnarr fnarr)

Director Andrew Davis (Holes, The Fugitive) says in the Behind the Scenes doc on the DVD that the situation in Colombia is one he thinks more people in the US should be talking about, and his personal politics almost certainly fed into his depiction of Colombia and its people here. The country is shown as a very beautiful one (even though it was shot in Mexico, but that’s beside the point) while he takes great care to not demonise anyone, even the bad guy. In my opinion, this reverse-jingoism definitely hurt Collateral Damage on its release. Coming out three weeks after 9/11 would have killed the flick, but even five months later it would have left at the very least an uncomfortable taste in most American mouths. Looking back through more than ten years of history, it stands up fairly well as a grown up action film, and it could well be one of the most Democratic (with a capital D) examples of the genre I have ever seen.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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