Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, April 25, 2015

SCHWARZENEGGER SWEEPS: Collateral Damage (2002)

Collateral Damage” is probably better known for the unfortunate circumstances surrounding its release then anything to do with the actual movie. The movie, about a firefighter going after the terrorist responsible for the death of his family, was originally scheduled for October 5th. This normally wouldn’t be a problem except this was October of 2001. Following September 11th, Warner Brothers desperately, suddenly pushed the film’s release date back to February of the next year. Buried in the winter months with very little promotion, it became one of the few genuine flops of Arnold’s career. Over the years, some have wonder what would’ve happen if “Collateral Damage” had been released when originally intended. In the aftermath of that horrible tragedy, wouldn’t it have been cathartic to watch Arnold murder terrorists? Maybe that would have flown in the eighties but not in this millennia. Ultimately, it was too soon, the subject matter was too raw, too close to the heart. Separated a decade from its original release, how does “Collateral Damage” play now?

Gordon Brewster is a happily married firefighter with a young son. He’s an especially brave man, leaping across gaping holes in flaming buildings to rescue people. On a seemingly normal day, a bomb goes off at a hospital, killing a number of people, including Brewster’s wife and son. Consumed by grief and anger, and disappointed by the government’s response, Brewster decides to take the fight to those responsible. He heads to Columbia on the trail of La Lobo, the murderer. Once there, Brewster realizes his mission of revenge is more complex then assumed and not everyone is who they appear to be.

In “End of Days,” Schwarzenegger played a darker character, a more conflicted type then he usually handles. “Collateral Damage” has the star returning to similar territory. The opening scenes of the film are almost too perfect and happy. The filmmaker’s goal is obvious, to make the inevitable lose all the more shocking. When the wife and kid are dead, around the eight minute mark, before the opening credits are even over, it’s expected. What isn’t expected is the movie focusing as much as it does on Gordon’s grief. During these scenes, Arnold’s face is haggard, his expression long. As big as the legendary star is, he seems unusually small. Schwarzenegger – wait for it – actually gives a good performance. He genuinely seems like a man who has lost something. The depression, and the anger, that follows is similarly intense. One of the film’s taglines referred to him as a “man with nothing to loose.” Arnold stretches his abilities as far as he can to fulfill that role. From the perspective of dramatic acting, it might be his best performance.

“Collateral Damage” is also not the low stakes popcorn action flick you might expect. The film deals seriously with the weight of revenge. While in Columbia, Brewster plants a bomb for Perrini, expecting to take him out. At that moment, he spies the villain’s wife and son walking down the street. Arnold dives to save them, afraid of repeating the act he’s avenging. Captured by the terrorists, the film brings up the uncomfortable fact that one man’s heroism is another man’s terrorism. The film’s villain considers himself a freedom fighter. In his quest for justice, Brewster comes dangerously close to becoming what he’s fighting. The movie isn’t afraid to show combat as a dirty, bloody business, two separate guerrilla organization brutally gunning each other down at one point. That a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, an actor not exactly known for picking material with dramatic nuance, would addresses these issues in this way is surprising. And welcomed.

To match the seriousness of the material, “Collateral Damage” is more of a thriller then an action film. During its run time, Arnold never even picks up a gun. The flashiest action scene in the film is a close-quarter struggle with an attacker over an active mine. Instead, the film spends a lot of time showing how Brewster gets into Columbia, faking a passport, sneaking into the city, avoiding detection from the local authorities. A lengthy sequence, which includes a cameo from a typically off-the-wall John Tuturro, has Arnold toiling for a while in a Colombian prison. Once he’s in the jungle, he spends more time running from the various military forces then fighting back. He gets close to his target with subterfuge and trickery. When the explosions come, they’re from home-made bombs planted by the good guy. Arnold’s character is easily captured and held prisoner by the antagonist for a lengthy portion in the middle of the film. All of this is atypical of the star’s usual movies. “Collateral Damage” is well written and paced, functioning as a thriller that keeps the audience surprised.

One of those surprises is the last act. The story returns to the US, Brewster on the trail of Perrini, his wife and kid in tow. It’s at this point that the worm turns, another bomb far closer then expected. Our hero figures it out before anyone else. The exact location of the bomb, and the way the movie reveals it, is effectively surprising. Loyalties are a twist that seemed a little cheap at first but I got over it. In its’ final third, “Collateral Damage” turns into an excellent chase flick. There’s a tense chase down an elevator shaft, Arnold and the target kicking at each other among the ladders and cables. The motorcycle aided game of chicken is exciting and I like the way it plays out. The film ends up eating its cake and having it too. The story mostly plays out as a tense thriller but we still get to see Arnold have a face-off with the bad guy, executing him with brute force and home-grown strength.

Supporting Arnold is a decent selection of character actors. Francesca Neri is soft but strong-willed as the main villain’s suffering wife. Cliff Curtis, as said villain, gets some surprising moments of humility and humanity. Elias Koteas plays the FBI agent equally pursuing and assisting Brewster. It’s not Koteas’ deepest performance but he’s fine in the part. John Leguizamo shows up for a thankless role as the villain’s mechanic. It’s a small role, with Leguizamo adding a little comic relief in a mostly fairly grim film. I also couldn’t help but notice Jane Lynch, in a bit part as an unlucky FBI agent.

“Collateral Damage” surprised me. For those you say Arnold is an actor who has never been willing to stretch himself, I suggest they watch this one. Not only is it a strong performance from him but a different sort of movie, a serious thriller with actual political themes on its mind. Yet it still gives Schwarzenegger faithfuls what they want: Namely, Arnold being a badass and taking out the trash. The decision to delay the film’s release was probably a smart one. The immediate aftermath of 9/11 was not the sensitive time to release a film like this, one that plays real world issues for both psychological studying and action movie thrills. In retrospect, it might be one of the hidden gems of Arnold’s long career. [7/10]

[X] Performs Ridiculous Feat(s) of Strength
[] Says, “I’ll be back.”
[X] Shows Off Buffness
[X] Unnecessarily Violent Opponent Dispatch
[] Wields A Big Gun or Sword With One Arm

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