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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

How do you spell vengeance?

Collateral Damage

Rating: * * *
Director: Andrew Davis
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: English
Now showing


Rating: * * * *
Director: Santosh Sivan
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Tamil
Now showing

It was more than a decade ago, and America was wrapping up a major war in the Persian Gulf. Just as Gen. Schwarzkopf was fading from our screens, after months of regaling us with tales of surgical strikes, along came Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2" as the personification of high-tech weaponry. But -- in an uncanny sync with the zeitgeist -- Arnold played a kinder, gentler Terminator, the embodiment of a smart bomb, an intelligent weapon that would take out the bad guys while avoiding "collateral damage." (Recall how John Connor forbade him to kill cops.)

News photo
Arnold Schwarzenegger and co-stars in "Collateral Damage"

This was a necessary illusion for Americans, as they tried to imagine the Gulf War as some sort of righteous crusade instead of the bloody oil grab it was. Schwarzenegger's fairy tale of morally discerning firepower stuck in the public consciousness, and few noticed the disquieting reports emanating from the Pentagon months later that more than 50 percent of "smart" ordnance went off-target.

Well, it's a new decade, and we have a new war now, but Arnold is still Arnold. He's back with a new film that's disturbingly -- and, again, coincidentally -- feeding the public just the myths that they need to believe in right now.

"Collateral Damage," directed by action journeyman Andrew Davis ("The Fugitive"), is already notorious for being pulled from distribution shortly after Sept. 11. The film's topic -- a fireman bent on revenge after his loved ones are killed in a terrorist bombing -- seemed a bit much for audiences shell-shocked by real life. Six months later, though, it seems the public can't get enough of patriotic movies glorifying the military ("Black Hawk Down," etc.) and action heroes who kick terrorist ass.

In "Collateral Damage," Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, an ordinary guy (well, as ordinary as you can be when you're Arnold) working for the L.A. fire department. Life changes in an instant for this doting family man. When he's late picking up his wife and child from the doctor's office, he arrives just in time to see the building blown to bits in a terrorist attack directed at the adjoining Colombian consulate.

Gordy is driven over the edge when a terrorist apologist refers to their deaths as tragic but unavoidable "collateral damage." He vows to track down the leftist, drug-producing Colombian rebel group responsible for the bombing and wreak his vengeance on them. (It should be noted that, in reality, virtually all political terrorism in the United States attributable to Latin Americans -- whether D.C. car-bombings or L.A. "disappearances" -- has originated with far-right, neofascist groups.)

Gordy travels to Colombia, where -- with a little help from a Canadian mechanic (John Turturro) and a coca producer/rapper wannabe (John Leguizamo, the comic relief), he locates his nemesis, "El Lobo" (Cliff Curtis), the kind of guy who's evil enough to shove a snake down a guy's throat. Gordy has a chance to take out El Lobo with a makeshift bomb, but doesn't pull it off, because -- in a perfect mirror situation -- a woman and child are also in the danger zone.

Note the subtle ideological spin in play here: the "terrorists" kill civilians at will, but Americans will go to any length not to. There's more: "Collateral damage" -- a cold, clinical term -- is used here by the terrorists, as a measure of their ruthlessness and callous disregard for innocent lives lost. In reality, the term is a euphemism that originated with the Pentagon, a shameless, Orwellian way to skirt around the phrase "civilian deaths."

Chivalry is all well and good in the movies, and Arnold -- as he is here -- is often a likable action star. But when the line between fantasy and reality is as blurred as it is today, when the rhetoric of political leaders mirrors the simplistic "good guys/bad guys" dichotomy of action flicks, films like this one don't help. Terrorism is too real to continue being viewed through the distorting prism of entertainment.

Demonization of "terrorists" as "evil" may feel good, and in certain cases is even appropriate, but it does little to explain the larger phenomena that drive people to commit such actions. Indian director Santosh Sivan attempts to do just that in his debut film "Malli (The Terrorist)." Based loosely on the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by a Tamil guerrilla, Sivan's film explores the reasons that could make a young woman end her life in a suicide bombing.

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Ayesha Dharkar in "Malli"

Sivan has obviously given the subject a great deal of thought; he was also the cinematographer on Mani Ratman's "Dil Se," which covered similar territory. "Malli" walks a fine line indeed, illustrating both the personal experiences of violence and powerlessness that fuel a desire for revenge, and the cynical way in which guerrilla leaders exploit these feelings among impressionable kids whose only "family" is the movement.

Sivan never specifies the country or conflict, but it's obviously modeled on the Tamil Tigers' revolt in Sri Lanka and the terror tactics they have employed. Nineteen-year-old Malli (Ayesha Dharkar) is first glimpsed executing the coup de gra^ce to a bloodied informant. The sight of this doe-eyed beauty acting so ruthlessly is chilling; flashbacks soon fill us in on her reasons, though -- watching a young boy die in her arms after an ambush by government troops.

Malli is then chosen to carry out a suicide bombing against a visiting politician. Her desire to serve the movement as a martyr is unswavering -- due to mind control, perhaps, but also due to her desire to join her murdered brother and parents. The tragedy of her past precludes imagining a future.

Malli goes undercover, posing as a college student, but as the day of action draws closer, her resolve is shaken when she learns that she's pregnant. In a parallel to Arnold's moral dilemma, she has to decide whether she can sacrifice an innocent. Dharkar, who has one of the most striking faces in cinema, keeps her cards close: Her expression is entirely hardcore, but every so often her eyes widen and hint at something deeper, the grief covered up by her rage.

Like "Bandit Queen," Sivan's "Malli" is a stark portrayal of how violence begets violence. It's also that rarest of rarities, an Indian film with no song or dance. Sivan's art lies in his camerawork, which is impeccable: He sets images of ravishing beauty -- the rain-soaked jungle, water droplets streaming off Malli's hair, a rain of flower petals -- in the context of the horror emerging from them. Terence Malick's "The Thin Red Line" is an obvious reference point.

Whether you feel terrorists should be wiped off the planet or you're inclined to address the root causes of despair, "Malli" is showing us a fact we ignore at our peril: Terrorists, like all people, have their reasons. A bold, brave and beautiful film, take advantage of this opportunity to see it. Not surprisingly, it never opened in the U.S.

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