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DVD Review: Collateral Damage

By Glenn Abel

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Damage art The gale-force winds of 9/11 buffeted Andrew Davis' "Collateral Damage," turning what would have been the routine fall release of an Arnold Schwarzenegger action film into a Hollywood sidebar to the young century's biggest news event.

"Damage" had obvious, ironic links to the Sept. 11 attacks: The story opens with the heroics of a fireman (Schwarzenegger) in a building that's become a fiery hell for those trapped inside. The story then moves to a foreign terrorist's bombing of a U.S. building resulting in high civilian fatalities (the so-called collateral damage, which includes the hero's wife and child). The film even opens with an aerial view of Century City's twin towers, the area targeted by the film's Colombian villain.

Beyond the similarities, the movie's moral -- that violence begets violence -- and its attempts to find a human side to its terrorist villains seemed more Richard Gere than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The movie's original release date, just weeks after Sept. 11, was quickly shelved. Warner Bros. Pictures clearly had a problem film.

"We had some battles," director Davis says of the studio brass. "We went back and forth about the politics of this."

In a scene showing Colombian civilians killed in a CIA-backed raid, Davis says, there was "my version" of who killed the innocents (CIA-backed paramilitary), and then there was "the studio's version" (guerrillas). Showing the "collateral damage" to women and children who lived with the rebels was no longer an option.

Warner Home Video has released "Damage" (retail $26.98) in widescreen only, with enhancement for 16:9 screens. Colors are delivered capably, with some rich greens in the jungle scenes and plenty of golden flash behind the many explosions and fires. The audio is Dolby Digital (5.1), without a DTS option. Like the video, the audio is up to studio standards, steady but unspectacular.

The disc contains Davis' director's commentary, deleted scenes, an HBO making-of featurette and the documentary "The Hero in a New Era," in which Davis and Schwarzenegger spin their film into a new-world perspective. (Those interviews apparently were conducted before the boxoffice release early this year and repurposed for the DVD.)

"Prior to Sept. 11, ('Damage') may have been taken as an entertainment, (but) I think the whole role of the movie is more significant now," a somber Davis says in the docu.

Schwarzenegger, a famously conservative immigrant, seems in touch with the film's theme: "It gave us an insight of ... why do terrorists attack our country? What are the things that our country does to make those people do these things?"

In his commentary, Davis hints at politically correct changes made to the film and speaks of key scenes "surviving" post-Sept. 11 cuts. He points to one jungle scene in which the terrorist leader speaks to Schwarzenegger's fireman of his patriotic motivations. Instead of ending as planned on the rebel's speech, a new fight sequence was tacked on re-emphasizing the terrorist's viciousness and "jazzing up Schwarzenegger's rage."

Trying to present a terrorist's viewpoint after the real-life attacks was "very delicate," Davis says philosophically.

The director says he visited New York firehouses in preproduction, taking plenty of photos for set design. "I'm sure I have photographs of men no longer alive," he says, adding that the negatives were sent to fire officials for distribution to victims' families.

"Damage," of course, went into production as a moderately topical action film, built around one of the genre's superstars and helmed by the director of "The Fugitive" and "Under Siege." Schwarzenegger plays a firefighter and semi-regular guy without combat skills. This apparently was seen as a stretch. "He's not Terminated," Davis explains. "He's not a pregnant father."

The story follows Schwarzenegger's shattered character into the wilds of Colombia in search of the bomber (Cliff Curtis) who killed his family. Along the way, he encounters various shady CIA operatives, a woman (Francesca Neri) who turns out to be the terrorist's wife and a local hotshot (John Leguizamo). The director seems unusually dedicated to depicting the region realistically but doesn't explain why Curtis, from New Zealand, and Neri, from Italy, were used instead of Hispanic actors. (Curtis even had to learn Spanish for the role.) For authenticity, Davis cast a few covert operatives in minor roles -- "the real item."

Davis and Co. constructed their rebel camp on a remote plantation in Mexico, building roads, huts and stone buildings, making it realistic enough that aerial photos of the site could be used in the movie. An old coffee plant stood in for a prison that's attacked by rebels in one of the film's most explosive scenes. Special effects supervisor Tommy Fisher ("Titanic") had to work his pyrotechnics around the old wooden structure. "It takes a real talent not to hurt anybody," Davis notes.

Leguizamo and Schwarzenegger apparently got on famously during location shooting, with the actors improvising much of their dialogue. The studio "went crazy" when Leguizamo started working off the page, Davis says, but calmed down after test screenings.

"Damage" was, of course, panned by Schwarzenegger's loyal opposition but also had its share of positive reviews, most citing the film's clever surprise ending. Davis does a good job of directing viewers' attention to how actress Neri and the editing team of Dov Hoenig and Dennis Virkler pulled off the decisive moment.

Like many directors doing DVD commentaries, Davis seems to delight in unraveling his film's crazy quilt of digital effects, locations work and soundstage scenes. "It's a brave new world of digital effects," he enthuses while breaking down an intensely composited action sequence in a waterfall.

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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