In the four months since its release was delayed due to the events of Sept. 11, the sleazy terrorist thriller Collateral Damage has been transformed from B-grade escapism to accidental Hollywood realism, with eerie parallels to recent events. But it's much more ridiculous, as if director Andrew Davis (The Fugitive) and his screenwriters looked into the future and envisioned a dashed-off, made-for-cable movie starring Jeff Fahey. At once too close to reality to function as entertainment and too distant to feign credibility, Collateral Damage arrives in theaters as a cultural artifact that should be buried deep in a time capsule for the next millennium. Even if it were possible to forget for two hours that Sept. 11 happened—and good luck, what with the office tower that explodes in the opening minutes—the film's retro-Commando vigilantism would likely continue the downward arc of Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. After Collateral Damage establishes him as a brave firefighter, a loving father, and an attentive husband, all before the credits finish, the bottom floor of the Colombian Consulate erupts in a fireball that kills his wife and son. The man responsible, a terrorist mastermind (Cliff Curtis) with the codename "El Lobo" ("The Wolf"), heads a radical guerrilla movement that wants America to cease its covert activities in Colombia. When the U.S. government fails to seek swift justice, Schwarzenegger sneaks over the border himself to exact his revenge, finding an unlikely ally in the terrorist's wife (Francesca Neri), a young mother who sympathizes with his situation. Collateral Damage was originally intended as the story of an ordinary man pushed to extraordinary lengths, toying briefly with the radical idea that the terrorist could be his Colonel Kurtz, a vision of where his bloodlust might lead him. But it looks like that idea was committeed out of existence, starting with the casting of Schwarzenegger, nobody's idea of an everyman, despite Davis' insistence that he never carry a weapon. With his conspicuous accent and hulking frame, it's a miracle that Schwarzenegger can Forrest Gump his way over the Panamanian border and into the guerrilla zone without drawing too much attention to himself. But then, "El Lobo" isn't one to hide out in cave complexes. A classic micro-manager, he not only plans terrorist bombings, but actually carries them out himself, still finding time in his schedule for the little things, like leading a prison break-in or jamming a poisonous snake down an informant's throat. In a way, Collateral Damage is redeemed by its implausibility, because the closer it comes to reality, the more disturbing it gets. For once, viewers have reason to be grateful for having their intelligence insulted.
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