Last week, I walked from a press screening of Collateral Damage to a photo exhibit about New York City on September 11. In the space of a couple of blocks, I thought about how Andy Davis' new movie wasn't very good, but how its intentions, at least, both politically and melodramatically, were honorable. Davis is one of the great, unpretentious craftsmen of action filmmaking: there are moments in The Fugitive and Above the Law that are about as smart and unflashy as you can get. He's often saddled with bad scripts, or perhaps scripts whose smarter content gets pared away in the editing room.
I went into the photo exhibit, with its 1,500 photos by amateur and professional photographers, its sea of witnesses. But in one corner, there was a videotape playing on a monitor. Someone had set up a video camera on their roof in Brooklyn and let it run for almost 90 minutes, from the time the World Trade Center was hit by the first plane until the crumpling of the second tower. I stared. My eyes stung. It took me hours before I could remember I'd spent the morning at an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
Collateral Damage places Schwarzenegger at the center of a second-rate rehash of world events as a revenge-bent Los Angeles fireman who hopes to avenge the death of his wife and child after their murder in an attack by Colombian terrorists. Back in September, there was a lot of minty-fresh talk about how Hollywood would or might or could or should change after the events of the fall. There was ill-informed talk about the movie never being shown, as if it were some sort of prescient snuff film that would too accurately track the tragic events in New York and Washington. Of course, that was foolish: major movies are distributed by international conglomerates, and it would be the height of fiduciary irresponsibility to chuck away $100 million dollars of stockholder equity. (It's even illegal.)
So now, come cold February, we get Arnold. Novelist Andrew Klavan wrote a piece for The New York Times op-ed page after the temporary shelving of Collateral Damage, offering the opinion that he would liked to have seen the movie that weekend, an idealized fantasy of how a single citizen could go out and kick some terrorist ass, how it could perhaps be cathartic. (The gritty Training Day took the dollars of those who wanted such stories back in October.) Others ventured guesses at what offense Collateral Damage might present in its unintended parallels with the tragic but all-too-real events of 9/11.
Yet the script by brothers David and Peter Griffiths has thematic integrity, adhering to poet W. H. Auden's declaration that "I and the public know/ What all schoolchildren learn,/ Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return." But while the script concentrates on vengefulness, there's nothing really unsettling or offensive about this movie. The only viewers who might be offended by Collateral Damage are those who are offended by mediocrity. Arnold treks to the jungles of Colombia, goes through a series of incredible coincidences, evades an incredible series of munitions lobbed toward his huge head, meets an unlikely series of character actors -- including John Turturro as a randy Canadian -- and eventually saves the day. (Though not until we've had to endure a neck-wrenching series of plot twists.)
It's sad, actually. While Davis remains true to his thematic focus, he is also one of the last great practitioners of spatial integrity. While it's disguised as a fictional location, the site of the bombing that kills Schwarzenegger's family, shot in Los Angeles' Century City, does not fabricate the impression of a place through a series of haphazard shots. If you know the location, you can actually see how he placed the camera to take advantage of what exists. In a movie like The Fugitive, or in the long, intricate chase through the Chicago Loop streets and alleyways in the Chuck Norris vehicle, Above the Law, or in how Chicago is made to resemble a dozen cities in The Package, Davis shows how the human form, vehicles and the motion picture camera can move through space.
Yet in spite of such skillful cinematography, what if the story is just too implausible? You get Collateral Damage. You catch a few minutes on cable late some night, you watch five minutes, you say, "That's not so bad," and then you click back to Sports Center.