Collateral Damage

Except for one little twist near the end, “Collateral Damage” offers no surprises. It is the quintessential Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick, right down to the last cliché. It reads like a “Simpsons” parody of an action movie, rather than an actual action movie.

Arnold plays Gordy Brewer, an L.A. firefighter whose wife and son are killed in a terrorist act. Due to diplomacy and red tape, the government is slow in retaliating against the perpetrator, a Colombian guerrilla who goes by the name “El Lobo” (“The Wolf”) and whose real identity is known only to … well, everyone in the FBI, apparently, though he’s still able to get past airport security pretty easily.

Anyway, despite a warning from kindly FBI Agent Phipps (Miguel Sandoval) that he mustn’t take the law into his own hands, Gordy takes the law into his own hands. He heads for Colombia to find El Lobo (Cliff Curtis) himself, doing so while voice-over narration from his firefighter buddies explains how it’s impossible to do. But he’s not gonna take no for an answer! He doesn’t play by the rules! He’s a loose cannon! He’s a one-man wrecking crew! He’s got nothing left to lose! Whatever!

El Lobo is an evil Bond-style villain, at one point killing an incompetent henchman with a snake — not by having the snake bite him, but by forcing the man’s jaws open with forceps and letting the snake crawl down his throat. Somehow, this kills him in under 10 seconds. It’s still early, but I believe this will be the stupidest movie death of 2002.

Gordy, for his part, is resourceful and MacGyver-esque, while also being embittered and vengeful. He has no interest in bringing El Lobo to justice; he simply wants to kill him.

As a viewer, it’s hard to get behind this course of action. Gordy’s feelings are natural, given the circumstances — but we humans tend to find a way NOT to act on our murderous impulses. At some point during the allegedly arduous journey into the jungles into Colombia, you’d think calm and reason would take over. That it doesn’t is further indication that Schwarzenegger doesn’t play characters; he plays types, specially designed to help audiences vicariously live out their violent fantasies.

John Turturro and John Leguizamo show up as people in Colombia who help Gordy, and Elias Koteas is a CIA agent with dubious motives. There1s also Francesca Neri and Tyler Garcia Posey as — get this — El Lobo’s wife and son, who coincidentally are about the same ages as Gordy’s dead family. Mrs. El Lobo explains her husband’s backstory, which tidily boils a terrorist’s motives down to a simple story of revenge. Those guys on CNN may try to tell you that there are complex factors at work in making a terrorist, but in the movies, it all comes down to a personal grievance, politics and religion be hanged.

It is directed by Andrew Davis, whose last memorable film was “The Fugitive,” which also had a scene in which a man goes over a waterfall and lives to tell about it. “Collateral Damage” is nothing more than a retread of other action movies depicting one man against the world. Whether this one makes any money will be the answer to the question of whether Schwarzenegger can just keep cranking these things out without thinking first, or whether we’re going to start demanding some originality.

C+ (1 hr., 55 min.; R, some harsh profanity, a lot of violence.)