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It is rare that a film comes along in which plot, dialogue, and acting come together in a synergistic whole that amplifies the quality of the parts, exploding beyond the very expectations of eager audiences.

Collateral Damage is such a film. It’s godawful, if that’s a word. It’s so bad that it’s good. I actually laughed myself to tears during one of the scenes, and describing the film afterwards to my spouse (who wisely opted to stay home), brought me again to hilarious tears. My face hurts just thinking about it.

(Before I start, I have to tell you the best line of the film: “So you want collateral damage, huh? I’ll give you collateral damage.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger)

Regicide

Schwarzenegger is more of a scowl manThe best scene of the film, the scene that will guarantee Collateral Damage’s appearance at this year’s Razzie awards, involves a harmless king snake. The king snake is probably playing the part of a poisonous coral snake. The markings are actually different, but let’s give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that it’s a poisonous snake.

Now when I think “poisonous snake” I take that to mean that the snake will poison you if it bites you. But the phrase is ambiguous. “Poisonous snake” could be like “poisonous mushroom.” Apparently the villains’ henchmen (and the screenwriters) were confused by the phrase.

The victim’s mouth is clamped open with a metal device. Then the henchmen hold the snake up to the waiting mouth, and in it crawls. Unless they thought the snake would somehow bite the concave walls of the stomach (assuming it survived the digestive hydrochloric acid), I’m guessing they just got confused by the phrase “poisonous snake” and thought that meant the snake had to be taken internally.

On the other hand, maybe they think the victim will choke on the snake, in which case a less exotic garden-variety snake would have done the job. Or a rag, for that matter. But even if a poisonous snake is dangerous for the henchmen to handle, it is nevertheless more interesting in a film, so let’s allow it. We’ll say they plan to choke this guy to death with a poisonous snake.

But then I have to wonder why a snake would willingly crawl down the gullet of a large predator. Perhaps, as my friend suggested, it was a suicidal snake. Maybe the henchmen tortured it to the point of despair. Seeing in the gaping mouth its own poetically apt end, the snake took its own life, dying as it had lived, being swallowed whole by someone higher on the food chain.

Poor little king snake.

The Rest of the Movie

The rest of the movie isn’t that interesting. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, a firefighter. Everyone calls him “the fireman,” in a seemingly jingoistic reference to America’s favorite post-September 11 heroes. (The film was finished last year and slated for release in October. It was delayed until 2002 because of the attacks.) The Fireman carefully drinks from a flag-motif mug in front of the camera, as if to practice for a future political career in front of TV cameras.

Arnold’s performance is wooden and unconvincing. He can’t even sell cheesy action movie dialogue. The first words out of his mouth are “Alright guys, heads up, let’s do it,” and he sounds more like RainierWolfcastle of The Simpsons than the Arnold we came to love in the Terminator movies. Worse yet, Arnold is called upon to cry in two early scenes. And although he doesn’t completely blow it, he’s definitely more of a scowl man.

He’s crying because his wife and precious son are killed by a bomb planted on American soil by foreign terrorists. (See why it was delayed?) When his liberal government decides to negotiate with the terrorists, Gordy decides to take matters into his own hands.

Of all the things the United States government is unwilling to do for a citizen, seeking revenge against a foreign terrorist who bombed our own soil isn’t one of them. So right from the get-go, the entire premise of the movie is ridiculous. English screenwriters David and Peter Griffiths (they’re brothers) show a great lack of understanding of political plot logic, especially compared to the political depth in smarter action movies like Three Kings.

Colombia and Back

Gordy catches a plane to Colombia and sets out to single-handedly kill the terrorist who planted the bomb. Along the way he runs into drug lords, henchmen, CIA operatives, and jungle terrorists. His paint-by-numbers pursuit of “The Wolf” (Cliff Curtis, who played a hostage in Three Kings) eventually leads him back to Washington, D.C., where another bomb has been planted.

A final showdown takes place in a tunnel underneath the CIA building. Our fireman starts an unnecessary fire to kill two already-trapped villains, rather than waiting for the authorities (who are, after all, a few flights upstairs).

It’s your standard action-movie formula, mad-libbed by two inept screenwriters, and infused with conservative patriotism to help launch the political career of an Austrian-American.

Keep Your Distance

My friend and I agreed: if we had gone alone and not been able to look at each other and laugh, we would have been annoyed at the loss of two hours and the waste of a perfectly good film budget.

Don’t let our misfortune befall you. Stay away from Collateral Damage. Don’t make any sudden moves, back away slowly, and whatever you do, don’t make eye contact. If you leave it alone, it will leave you alone.

  • Matt: It's venomous, not poisonous.

    Venom is injected (it would have bit his tongue or something). Poison is something you ingest.

    There's only 3 poisonous snakes in the world. August 3, 2013 reply