Bloodsports

Schwarzenegger tries killing us softly; 'Rollerball' earns a red card

Entertainment has always played an important part in raising the morale of our nation during difficult times.

--Arnold Schwarzenegger, November 14, 2001

I'm going to kill you.

"Ain't it tough enough?" Cliff Curtis's terrorist does the ol' videotaped threat thing in 'Collateral Damage'
Warner Bros.
"Ain't it tough enough?" Cliff Curtis's terrorist does the ol' videotaped threat thing in 'Collateral Damage'

--Schwarzenegger's Gordy Brewer in Collateral Damage

"This may be tough to watch," says an FBI agent of the videotape that our hero Gordy Brewer (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is about to witness, in which the L.A. firefighter's wife and kid can be seen falling prey to a terrorist bombing near a downtown high-rise. It's the same warning, in effect, that was issued by Warner Bros. Pictures on September 12, when the studio announced its plans to pull Der Arnold's Collateral Damage from the fall release schedule. This may be tough to watch.

But is it? After several minutes of excruciating first-reel suspense (how much terror will have survived the edit?), the big bang occurs. And forgive me for saying that it's a big letdown. I mean, any of Ed Wood's erector-set detonations in Plan 9 From Outer Space contain more explosive power than this one, whose digital "flames" look about as real as a grade schooler's finger-painted rendition of a roaring campfire. We can only assume, given the infinite array of high-tech tricks available to the studio, that the artificiality is deliberate. (How considerate of Hollywood to safeguard our fragile psyches.) But amid its deep concern for our emotional well being (or for their box-office take?), the board of AOL Time-Warner may have misread the tenor of the times. After what we've seen on CNN, is it possible to achieve catharsis so tastefully? Indeed, among the countless cases of post-9/11 collateral damage is that Hollywood has suffered the loss of its once-unique ability to register the sum of all fears.

The thing that's unique about Collateral Damage, at least among Schwarzenegger bloodbaths, is its relatively small number of initial casualties--two dozen injured and nine dead, including Gordy's wife and son. Still, in the sense that the terminator's overseas payback comes to exceed the rather modest losses, the film isn't without the sort of brute authenticity that resonates most during wartime. After making his way by plane, helicopter, and crowded bus to...drum roll, please... Colombia (a future nominee for Axis of Evil honors?), the pumped-up Gordy locates the culprit--a civil-war guerrilla and drug lord known as the Wolf (Cliff Curtis)--and begins planting some bombs of his own.

Yet, as Schwarzenegger himself is certainly well aware, this isn't 1985 anymore. So in the midst of blowing the Wolf's venomous snake-loving henchmen all the way to Panama, the vigilante widower gets a chance to show his sensitive side. Seeing that the head thug has a wife (Francesca Neri) and child (Tyler Garcia Posey) of his own, Gordy saves their lives, and even considers making them an offer to replace his dear-departed loved ones back in the States...and then he pays the price. Straining every muscle not to offend, Collateral Damage counts basic coherence among its own casualties. But it's crystal clear on one point: Taking mercy on the "enemy," women and children included, is for wimps.

Collateral Damage, which inspired picketing in Colombia last week, reveals the degree of acceptable loss within the industry's saturation-bombing method of global marketing. (One perversity of the U.S. export biz is that the movie will probably gross huge in Bogotá.) The Kazakhstan-set Rollerball, meanwhile, reads as an unintended allegory of Hollywood's fear that those reliably exploitable territories might start producing American culture more profitably than we do--and with our own talent! Lured by the opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond, hunky Jonathan Cross (Chris Klein--call him Keanu without the irony) warms up for his role as "the next Wayne Gretzky" by taking a palatial apartment in central Asia and playing rollerball, a sort of human pinball game whose participants beat each other silly while cruising around on inline skates and souped-up Harleys. (And you thought Gladiator was scary? These guys wear eyeliner!)

Although this international co-ed bloodsport is plenty compelling by itself, the movie's real drama kicks in once Jonathan learns that the chin strap under the helmet worn by his fallen American teammate had been deliberately cut prior to the literal face-off. Gradually (and I mean very gradually), our dim-bulb hero begins to suspect foul play on the part of the Russian rollerball mogul Petrovich (Jean Reno), whose creative means of producing gore in pursuit of "a North American cable deal" match even the filmmakers'. And there's the rub: Rollerball is rigged to play as a critique of the corporate media's ruthlessly sensational tactics (overseas, that is), but even a junior-high hockey goalie could recognize it as a cheesy product of such sensationalism itself. Funny that the original Rollerball from 1975, with its futuristic vision of a benevolently totalitarian energy company (!), would now appear no less contemporary than the remake--which ultimately urges us sporting slaves to slam our corporate oppressors against the boards. Not to sound like a terrorist here, but I can't help wondering whether the lion that sits at the gates of MGM is trained in self-defense.

 
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