Bully Pulpit

The great box-office beneficiary of the new bellicosity, Black Hawk Down has proved perfectly attuned to the present moment in its tone of aggrieved injury. The events of September 11 allowed Americans to feel like victims and act like bullies—just like the hapless soldiers of the 1993 Somalia mission. It's difficult to construe BHD as a pro-war movie, but to question its representation of us-versus-them is the next worst thing to being an American Taliban. (My own less-than-enthusiastic review prompted an instant invitation to spar with right-wing TV gasbag Bill O'Reilly.)

Given the Fox network's failure to french-fry John Walker Lindh's balls during halftime at the Super Bowl, we have Arnold Schwarzenegger's long-awaited, well-advertised Collateral Damage, which, by the time you read this, has most likely replaced BHD as the nation's premier (and most protested) box-office attraction. Its release tastefully postponed after September 11, this once routine tale of an L.A. firefighter's revenge on the Colombian terrorists who blew up his wife and child has been reborn as an Event—endorsed by no less an authority than Rudolph Giuliani and subject to demonstrations a week before its opening.

An embarrassment on September 12, a patriotic vision five months later. Warner Bros. evidently began testing, and perhaps tweaking, Collateral Damage back in November—discovering, to no one's surprise, that audiences were far more responsive to the scenario than before the terror attacks. (The intra-studio paper trail would doubtless provide a crash course in emergency marketing.) Thus the movie's release version begins as if in the fiery heart of the WTC holocaust, with Arnold and his fellow smoke-eaters saving lives. "Heads up—let's do it!" the star cries, as if anticipating the anti-hijacker signal, Let's roll!

Der Arnold, the Fireman
photo: Warner Bros.
Der Arnold, the Fireman


Collateral Damage
Directed by Andrew Davis
Written by David Griffiths & Peter Griffiths
Warner Bros.

Written and directed by Larry Fessenden
Film Forum
Opens February 15

Much Ado About Something
Written and directed by Michael Rubbo
Film Forum
Through February 26

One scene later, Arnold's central-casting wife and son are vaporized before his eyes when a bomb detonates outside the Colombian consulate. Small by WTC standards, the explosion reportedly leaves nine dead and 24 injured, but it is more than sufficient to light the fuse of Arnold's one-man war on the El Lobo terrorist cadre. Perhaps newly added to the film is the scene wherein the hooded guerrilla leader sends a videotape blaming "American war criminals" for provoking his group's action. Even more key to the movie's emotional thermostat is the Colombian leftist who openly sympathizes with the terrorists, using the U.S. Army phrase "collateral damage" to rationalize Schwarzenegger's dead family, thus prompting Arnold to redecorate the guy's grungy headquarters with a baseball bat.

Schwarzenegger has said that Collateral Damage showcases his vulnerable side. True, he does have to fight mano a mano with a girl. (As usual, a signifier of revolutionary cadres is a heavy sprinkling of grim-faced warrior-women in their combat-fatigued ranks.) Suffice to say that, whether sprinting through the rainforest or digi-diving down a waterfall, der Arnold is more than tough enough to wipe the smirk from beneath El Lobo's mask. The revolutionary's quotes are largely from the Al Qaeda fakebook: "Americans hide behind family values . . . they have forgotten the reality of war, not like us." This reality is apparent when the sadistic guerrillas prove their native cruelty by exotically forcing one of their own to swallow a live coral snake.

Intermittently, in attempts to articulate a coherent argument, Collateral Damage shifts from pulse-pounding mode to something more migraine-conducive. It takes a sudden segue to fisticuffs and ear-chomping for the movie to escape from a tautological debate on moral equivalence between good vengeance and bad. ("You Americans are so naive. You never ask, why does a peasant need a gun? You think you are the only ones to fight for your independence?" The non sequitur riposte: "Independence to do what—kill women and children?") Similarly, in the aftermath of Arnold's single-handed decimation of the guerrilla camp, El Lobo asks the Fireman (as he is usually known) to explain the difference between them, prompting Arnold to ponderously elucidate, "I'm just going to kill you."

This is the sort of burly action flick where one coincidence pummels another, narrative necessity is a drunken roundhouse, and whatever passes for logic is a factor of the last plot device left standing. It's a small world after all, particularly in comparison to Arnold. When the star instructively yells, "You cannot fight terror with terror," at the resident CIA sleazebag (Elias Koteas), he's creating his own foreign policy; when he extends his protection to El Lobo's consort (Francesca Neri), he's acting as a nation unto himself.

Collateral damage is something that Americans have inflicted far more than they have suffered, but in this case, the phrase is synonymous with windfall profits. Just as George Bush's questionable presidency was consecrated by the War on Terror, so Schwarzenegger's flagging career should be revived. Perhaps the Fireman will again decide to run for governor. All together now: "Heads up. Let's . . . do . . . it!"

The nuclear family comes under another sort of terror attack in Wendigo, a nifty supernatural chiller by independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden. A Manhattan professional couple, commercial photographer George (Jake Weber) and psychotherapist Kim (Patricia Clarkson), along with their eight-year-old son, Miles (Erik Per Sullivan), are en route to a winter weekend at a Catskill farmhouse when their Volvo station wagon hits a buck on an icy back road and a subsequent encounter with a hostile hunter (John Sperednakis) turns their getaway into a nightmare.

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