Contrary to advance protests, Collateral Damage doesn't libel Colombians. Instead, it trips over its own combat boots to portray the civilian population as innocent peasants caught between murderous drug-smuggling guerrillas and cold-blooded CIA operatives.

In its own inept, heavy-breathing fashion, the movie deplores the collateral damage of America's own covert military misadventures. Indeed, it goes so far in this respect that a couple of wiseacres in a theater cheered for the Colombian kamikazes.

Contrary to other advance protests, Collateral Damage does not exploit the events of Sept. 11. Benefit from, yes, but not exploit.

If those events had never happened and the film's release had not been delayed from Oct. 5, this movie would simply be another failed Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle. Because those events did happen, the picture now looks prescient, both in its use of a firefighter as a symbol of American courage and decency - except maybe for the moment when he pulls a Mike Tyson and bites off an opponent's ear - and in its depiction of a terrorist who sees the United States as an easy target because he miscalculates that its citizens will fold under pressure.

It's too bad that earnestness is a moral, not an artistic, quality. Otherwise, all Collateral Damage manages to do, with a dumb cartoon sobriety, is re-mint every feint and trope of the international-jeopardy thriller, from the grabber opening that turns out to be a mere premonition of disaster, to the villains who keep chugging out of certain death like demon Energizer Bunnies.

Schwarzenegger plays L.A. fireman Gordy Brewer, blessed with a wife and son so attractive and affectionate that they immediately register as part of what a screenwriter friend once called the "don't-get-too-fond-of-them" syndrome. Sure enough, within minutes a Colombian terrorist known as El Lobo blows them up in full view of Gordy. When Gordy realizes that a CIA official named Brandt (Elias Koteas), the unscathed target of the attack, isn't about to put justice for a dead wife and kid at the top of the agency's to-do list, the fireman decides to sneak into Colombia and finish off El Lobo himself.

Director Andrew Davis and his screenwriters render the movie in block letters and broad strokes. The audience receives no credit for mental capacity; when Gordy recognizes El Lobo, the moviemakers flash back to El Lobo planting the bomb just in case we can't make the connection.

Gordy gets mad and trashes the L.A. headquarters of a Colombian radical group that milks the terrorist explosion for publicity, yet a counter-terrorist agent (Miguel Sandoval) persuades the group not to press charges. A fire-fighting friend finds an expert who offers Gordy exactly one piece of advice on how to navigate Colombia safely: get on a bus. Gordy enters Colombia via Panama and does get on a bus. He witnesses the panic and carnage surrounding a CIA roadblock, defends a mysterious beauty (Francesco Nera) and her son, and is thrown in prison, where he meets a Canadian engineer (John Turturro) who is connected to the guerrilla's cocaine operations.

The irrepressibly raunchy engineer is merely a plot convenience, but he and his employer, El Lobo's antsy drug manufacturer (John Leguizamo), hand off the few punch lines like a comic-relief relay. They don't get a chance to do or say anything really funny, but this film is so dour, the effort is appreciated. Schwarzenegger thinks he's stretching by trying to do an Everyman role better suited to Harrison Ford. But that also was the pitch behind Schwarzenegger's cloning picture, The 6th Day, and, anyway, these are the kinds of characters that can turn Ford into a bore.

Director Davis has become a bore all by himself. Those dubious about his smash-hit version of The Fugitive - for the way it used a murder flashback like a percussion instrument, and for how it turned a doctor into Tarzan - at least had to acknowledge that he pulled off one or two giant set-pieces.

In Collateral Damage, he doesn't. Schwarzenegger's fireman cascading down a waterfall has none of the surprise and oomph of Ford's good doctor jumping down the face of a dam. It isn't just a matter of the digital revolution dulling a director's reflexes; even the scenes of exotic processions and unexpected violence in the streets are perfunctory, unworthy of comparison to similar ones in Proof of Life.

The movie starts as a quasi-realistic melodrama and then resorts to having El Lobo prove himself a master of disguise by flying into Washington and ambling through Union Station - in a business suit. The action climaxes with a narrative bombshell that retroactively renders the rest of the film implausible. But watching it, I was grateful - the shock may be awful, but it has a flair missing from the rest of the movie.

Aside from Gordy drinking from an American flag coffee cup, Collateral Damage isn't jingoistic; it also isn't exciting. It's a depressed rabble-rouser. Schwarzenegger may be right when he says audiences want to see "America kick butt," but what they'll see here is America falling on its butt and Arnold picking it back up and holding it grimly, like a modern Atlas in need of a rest.

Collateral Damage

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger

Directed by Andrew Davis

Rated R (violence)

Released by Warner Bros.

Running time 115 minutes

Sun score: *

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