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Dan Heller's Movie Review of "Collateral Damage"


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What makes the new Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Collateral Damage, so interesting isn't the plot, or the action, or any of its superficial features. It's the haunting juxtaposition of its scheduled release amid the attack of September 11. It was held back for obvious reasons, but it has just now been released in theaters nationwide (February 8, 2002), and gives food for thought on just how interestingly American attitudes have changed in such a short period of time. In fact, I find that aspect so intreguing, that the movie may remain, unfortunately, as a small milestone that marks the end of an old era of movies and the beginning of a new one. This is the only quality of the movie that gives it its unintended positive vote.

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As a movie, Collateral Damage is pretty darn awful - even die-hard Schwarzenegger fans will find it somewhat of a yawner. It is fraught with illogical sequences, bad acting, and doesn't even have a classic "Arnold one-liner", that we can quote with a grin. Yet, what I found so fascinating is how the movie is now a historical document, a sociological retrospective that peeks back into our not-so-distant past, when our casual attitude towards world affairs was so simplistic, simple-minded and oblivious. What's even scarier is to think that perhaps nothing has changed.

The premise of the movie is pretty much standard fare for peacetime action movies: Arnold plays a Los Angeles fireman whose wife and child are killed in a random bombing by a Columbian terrorist who is fed up
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with America's involvement in his country. He wants to bring the war to American soil by blowing up buildings and killing as many people as possible with hopes of changing American policy towards Columbia by simply getting out. No surprise there - that's not too dissimilar from Osama bin Laden's objective with the World Trade Center - to get us out of Saudi Arabia. But this movie was made pre-September 11, and in this film, the government decides not to pursue the terrorist (in effect, letting him win). This, of course, inflames Arnold, who dutifully goes after him alone. Trained only in fire-fighting, he manages to infiltrate Columbian grounds and get the closest anyone has ever gotten to what we are lead to believe to be the most powerful drug lord in the world.

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What's interesting is that the movie unintentionally strikes a very impressive chord given today's climate. The pivotal scene is where Arnold has planted a bomb next to the terrorist's head-quarters and is waiting for it to blow up, when the terrorist's wife and child - who are the same ages as his late wife and child - happen to be walking by. Unlike his terrorist counterpart, he wants to protect innocent people, so he screams out to get the woman's attention, unintentionally drawing attention to himself and getting captured. Here, he is finally face to face with the terrorist where the terrorist asks the crucial question: "So here we are, two men, both willing to kill for a cause we believe in. What makes us different from one another?"

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Oh, the question rings so loud! The big, philosophical dilemma that defines the very paradox of terrorism. I'm reminded of the quote, "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Could an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie actually pose such wonderfully enticing questions and address them thoughtfully? Is this going to be America's awakening? Can we set aside patriotism for just a moment to recognize that this whole thing isn't quite so easy after all?

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Just as I was so eager to see something - anything - that might prompt meaningful thought, Arnold responds with the most vacuous reply possible, "The difference is that I'm going to kill you." Oh, God. It's not even a campy one-liner ready-made for bumper-stickers on old Volkswagens.

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Of course, the movie was made before September 11, when they couldn't have taken into account the new perspective and awareness of real terrorism in our country. To wit, Collateral Damage doesn't even try to be patriotic - rather, Arnold just wants personal revenge. But that is what makes the movie so interesting! It highlights the huge, dramatic change of America's attitudes towards these issues from when such topics were considered light entertainment. I'm sure (if not just blindly hopeful) that if Arnold were to have made the movie today, the script probably would have been considerably different, even if the only difference was that his righteousness would be driven by patriotism, not just a personal grievance. Or, perhaps I'm just too optimistic about our own culture.

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