The cynical and ruthless CIA agent Brandt. In many other action films his character type would act as the hero — the knowledgeable and no-nonsense government official held back by his cowardly, politically motivated superiors.  But in Collateral Damage, Gordy’s benevolent paternalism contrasts with Brandt's ruthlessness. The film thus offers a model of good vs. bad forms of imperialism.

Brandt’s politician bosses.  From both Brandt’s and Gordy’s perspective, their message of diplomatic caution is self-serving and ineffective.  Diplomacy is explicitly the worthless policy of politicians here. The audience must choose between Brandt’s and Gordy’s ideological positions. 

The masked El Lobo delivers the terrorists’ message to U.S. media. El Lobo’s disguised voice slightly resembles Schwarzenegger’s Austrian accent, hinting at the dark realities of Gordy’s quest for revenge. 

Claudio at the terrorist compound.  His uniform suggests a politically-engaged national project rather than an irrational campaign of violence.

Gordy meets a perverted Canadian mechanic played by John Turturro, whose association with art and indie films gives Collateral Damage some artistic credibility.

Gordy continues his trek deep into the Colombian jungle...

... and, as in Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, this trek is a journey upriver.

The hero’s quest upriver, then, becomes a metaphor for his exploration of both his dark desire for a violent revenge and the messy realities of U.S. imperialism overseas.

The Colombian jungle as an anarchic site of primitivism, the wilderness which serves as the backdrop to examine U.S. values.

A dead body floats in the river. Like Conrad’s novella and Coppola’s film, the brand of anti-imperialism in Collateral Damage still relies upon common tropes of primitivist imagery.

Another cameo by a respected character actor, John Leguizamo, gives the film’s exploration of politics credibility.

Claudio’s true nature comes out. Despite his nationalist rhetoric, Claudio resorts to a typical display of action film villain brutality, forcing a poisonous snake down the throat of a subordinate.

Another view of Claudio’s evil. Here the film discards all ambiguity and portrays terrorists as sinister sadists.

Claudio stands over the captured Gordy and attempts to break down the good/evil distinctions of the melodrama of terrorism, discussing the violence perpetrated by the U.S. government...

... but Gordy retorts with the wit of the action film: “The difference between you and me is that I’m only going to kill you!”

Gordy then jumps into action and bites the ear off of one of Claudio’s henchmen.

Gordy biting the ear.

After biting the ear off, Gordy spits it out. This display of violence is visceral and uneasy, not appropriate for the moral imperatives of the action film hero.

Selena, Claudio’s wife, tends to Gordy’s wounds, playing a typically feminine role.

The CIA is again portrayed as cynical and uncaring, here using their advanced technology to attack the low-tech encampment of the terrorists. Also, the use of helicopters against the village perhaps alludes to the "Flight of the Valkyries" sequence in Apocalypse Now.

Women and children at the terrorists' village flee the CIA’s attack.

Brandt leading the callous attack on the village.

Gordy, on the other hand, protects Selena and her son from the attack. Instead of Brandt’s violent imperialism the audience can identify with Gordy’s paternal protection.

After saving Selena and her son, Gordy ushers them back to the states to enlist them in the fight to stop El Lobo.


Imperial anxiety

Collateral Damage, however, does not explicitly participate in the hegemonic “statespeak” regarding terrorism. The film tells the story of Gordy Brewer, a Los Angeles fireman whose wife and child are killed in a terrorist bombing at the Colombian consulate. Although the film follows a typical action film revenge plot — a man with nothing to lose hunts down the villain responsible for his suffering — the film complicates this basic storyline. Gordy does attempt to track down “El Lobo,” the terrorist responsible for the bombing, but once in Colombia Gordy’s quest for vengeance is put into the context of a morally ambiguous U.S. imperialism in South America and the general ethics of revenge. Gordy must navigate both the jungles of Colombia and the rocky political terrain carved out by insurgent guerillas and corrupt CIA officials. He also meets the wife and son of El Lobo (a.k.a. Claudio) and must confront the ethical consequences his own desire for revenge. Within this typical action plot is an interrogation of the logic and ideology of terrorism, upon which much action film melodrama is based.

For example, Collateral Damage, at least superficially, offers the terrorists a viable political position and a justified grievance against U.S. imperialism. In order to exercise the moral clarity offered by melodramatic discourses of terrorism, action films (and governments) usually deny that terrorists have any rational or realistic political projects. For example, Phillip Elliot, Graham Murdock, and Phillip Schlesinger have shown that British television reinforces the British demonology of “terrorists” by claiming,

“The terrorist is the polar example of the extremist, a fanatic and psychopath who lies beyond the pale of the comprehensible, rational politics of a liberal democracy” (157).

Refusing to acknowledge that “terrorist” groups lay claim to any ideology, they are portrayed as anarchic sadists intent on only violence and destruction.[4]

In Collateral Damage, however, the film explicitly acknowledges the political project of Claudio and his militia as they attempt to expel an intrusive and often exploitive U.S. presence in Colombia (as characterized by the cynical and callous CIA agent Brandt). Gordy comes face to face with the realities of U.S.-backed oppression in this fictional Colombia as Selena, Claudio’s wife, relates the violent narrative that pushed her husband into terrorism. And later in the film Gordy, held prisoner by El Lobo, must evade the CIA’s violent assault on women and children at the terrorist compound. While we are still morally aligned with Gordy’s position as grieving father, the film offers El Lobo a defensible political position and depicts the atrocities of U.S. imperialism. So early on in the film, when Gordy hears the representative of a political group that supports El Lobo use the clichéd defense of terrorism that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” the film is not simply disparaging the cliché’s moral relativism. While the film vilifies this supporter of violence and punishes him (Gordy destroys his office with a baseball bat), Collateral Damage is also wrestling with this statement and its implications. The film is uneasy with a simple good versus evil distinction when it comes to terrorism and U.S. anti-terrorism efforts.

In one instance, in fact, the film even seems to question the necessity and legitimacy of Gordy’s violence. Taken captive by Caludio and his militia, Gordy is bound and interrogated at their compound in the jungle. After Claudio eloquently attempts to compare Gordy’s quest for violence with his own, Gordy retorts, “The only difference is...I’m just going to kill you,” at which point he attempts to fight his captors and in the process graphically bites off one of the henchmen’s ears. Gordy’s quick-witted one liner coupled with his sudden burst into violent action reorients the viewer into the formula of the action genre, yet the bizarre brutality of tearing off an ear with one’s mouth makes what should be a celebration of violence and action uneasy. While certainly not brutal enough to be out of place in an action film, the bitten-off ear represents the kind of bizarre and hyper-visceral brutality usually reserved for the action film villain. In this display of violent spectacle, then, the film raises questions about the legitimate/ illegitimate, civilized/ barbaric, good/ evil dichotomies upon which the structure of the action genre and discourses of terrorism are based.

What I want to suggest, then, is that on some level Collateral Damage is concerned with questioning the demonology of terrorism and the necessity of violent U.S. imperialism. The film can even be read as a veiled allusion to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Coppola’s film based on Conrad’s novella, Apocalypse Now, with Gordy traveling upriver in Colombia in his attempt to reach not only the terrorist compound but his own dark fantasies of violent revenge. Once in Colombia, the narrative becomes episodic and somewhat absurd as Gordy crosses paths with a perverted Canadian mechanic who works for the terrorists and a mouthy American who dreams of hip-hop stardom but in the meantime packages cocaine for the terrorists (played by John Turturro and John Leguizamo, two actors often associated with art films and indie films, offering Collateral Damage artistic credibility).

And, using a common narrative trope for crime films in which the pursuer/cop takes on the characteristics of the pursued/criminal, Gordy must also confront his desire to kill El Lobo and the morality of such a murder. Earlier in the film he sees a tape of El Lobo, masked in black and using a voice-distorting device. The mechanical voice of El Lobo, however, seems similar to Schwarzenegger’s thick Austrian accent. This audio parallel perhaps suggests that as Gordy gets closer and closer to his dream of retribution, it might as well be Gordy behind the dark mask planning and carrying out murders. Not simply glorifying the act of violent revenge through the vilification of terrorism, the film showcases some of the moral ambiguities inherent in most action films' logic.

Of course, these aspects of the film do not absolve Collateral Damage from a Eurocentric approach to imperialism (especially considering that Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now are not widely considered a fully anti-imperialist texts). Collateral Damage, after all, relies upon a common imperialist trope by using the exotic Third World jungle and wilderness as “the tangled sites of violent impulse and anarchic lust” (Shohat and Stam 141). The film also uses the wilderness of Colombia similarly to Conrad’s use of Africa (and Coppola’s use of Vietnam): as a

“metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European [and American] enters as his peril” (Achebe 1790).

The Colombian jungle becomes merely the backdrop for an U.S. debate about terrorism and morality, the wilderness that is so obviously the “Other” to U.S. civilization. Furthermore, as Jim Kitses points out, the device of at least superficially dramatizing both sides of a conflict in an action film is a clichéd “old trick”:

“You know the drill — the villain suggests he and the hero are alike: America too practices terrorism. […] the terrorist is allowed to voice grievances, but ultimately the point of view remains decidedly with the home team” (29).

Nevertheless, Collateral Damage does more than the average action film (and certainly much more than other Schwarzenegger action films such as True Lies) in dramatizing these debates rather than occluding them through the moral clarity of the action film as melodrama.

Fatherhood and the action hero
as imperial patriarch

That Collateral Damage raises these problems, however, is not particularly indicative of a progressive and oppositional perspective on terrorism. Rather, these problems are posed only so that they can be solved and moral legibility restored. Acknowledging the moral ambiguities of terrorism, however, does reveal a growing cultural concern pre-9/11 that overzealous U.S. imperialism is one of the major causes of international terrorism or that media depictions of terrorism are unfair. The common action film trope Kitses describes above — where the film superficially suggests that the violence of the action hero is perhaps as illegitimate as that of the villain — might very well represent an ideological hesitation, a hint at the fact that the culture needs to be convinced that the ultra-violence of the hero is absolutely needed.

Parts of U.S. culture pre-9/11, after all, seemed somewhat concerned about racist depictions of terrorism. Arab-American groups criticized Schwarzenegger’s 1994 film True Lies for its depiction of Arab terrorists, and the 1998 film The Siege attempted to depict the racial backlash against Arab-Americans in a time of terror-induced national crisis (Jenkins 159). Collateral Damage, in fact, was originally scripted to focus on Libyan terrorists, tapping into the 1980s anti-Libyan discourses that Chomsky discusses (IMDB). That the film later shifted its focus to Colombian terrorism rather than Middle-Eastern terrorism might very well be a reaction to this emerging cultural sensitivity.[5] Yet the complex depictions of terrorism in the film appeal to these concerns only so that they can be alleviated and faith in the United States reinstated.

As suggested, this faith in the United States is articulated by means of the formulae of the action film genre and its participation in the melodramatic mode of cinematic narrative. The work of a melodramatic genre, after all, is the staging of cultural conflict and the resolution of this conflict through the interplay of pathos and action. And as Thomas Schatz has argued, the conventions of the genre film depict certain cultural conflicts and perceived threats to society and then provide “an array of ideological strategies for negotiating social conflicts” (29). Genres can essentially act as cultural problem-solving techniques, focusing on threats to social order then alleviating those threats through the demands of narrative closure. Genres are also dynamic; their “rules” change to accommodate new threats and challenges (16). Genres can thus allow the culture to both display and alleviate concerns about the social order.

The traditional U.S. action film, therefore, dramatizes a number of perceived cultural threats to the social order: for example, the threat of racial communities to white hegemony, or the threat of bureaucratization and male powerlessness. The action film also usually depicts a literal threat to social order and legality as they often center on crime, military actions, or terrorism. These conflicts and anxieties, however, are then resolved through genre conventions and an articulation of moral legibility.

In Collateral Damage, however, we see a new threat to the social order that typical action films often overlook: moral ambiguity. In the film, the primary threat to social order that is resolved through narrative closure is not necessarily terrorism but moral confusion, our willingness to become involved in the human suffering of terrorists.

One of the key tools for solving this problem in Collateral Damage is the expanding discourse of U.S. masculinity and fatherhood. As Mark Gallagher notes, the action film genre has increasingly dramatized a cultural crisis in masculinity by emphasizing domesticity more and more in what has usually been a genre reserved for male fantasies of omnipotence and violence:

“Moving away from the Rambo-era convention of the solitary male with no social or familial ties, more recent films reposition the male hero as the protector of the domestic space” (214).

Using Schwarzenegger’s True Lies as an example, Gallagher shows how contemporary action films negotiate a vision of male authority in the face of increasing male domesticity within the culture. Although Gallagher points out that True Lies “calls attention to the incompatibility of the action hero persona with the responsibilities of domestic life” (217), this burgeoning concern with domesticity and particularly with fatherhood in the action film also tends to incorporate paternalism into the hyper-masculine persona of the action hero. As True Lies so explicitly illustrates, the role of the good father and the role of the masculine warrior for the nation-state are one in the same: Schwarzenegger’s character becomes a better father and protects the state by killing the terrorists who kidnapped his daughter.

As Gallagher points out, this re-conception of fatherhood is described by Susan Jeffords as “individualism as fathering.” Faced with the loss of individual male autonomy in a world of corporate power, men instead focus on the family and their roles as fathers as the sites where they exercise authority. By transferring their masculine ideals away from political and economic independence, men

“can regain a sense of masculine power without having to confront or suggest alterations in the economic and social system that has led to their feelings of deprivation” (Jeffords, Hard Bodies 170).

By emphasizing their roles as fathers and protectors of the family, men can reassert the authority lost through bureaucratization and corporate capitalism.

These discourses of gender and family in the action film have received a great deal of attention in recent years. From Gallagher’s argument that the emphasis on family and fatherhood is a departure for the action genre, to Susan Jefford’s claims that the action film protagonist became more “soft” in the 1990s and learned to express and use their emotions (“The Big Switch”), to Yvonne Tasker’s claim in “The Family in Action” that the recent focus on family is an extension of the adventure film’s concern with intense relationships forged in spectacular action, much recent film criticism has been devoted to untangling the complicated gender and familial relations of the action film. However, while these debates are important, it seems clear that in many cases the complex negotiation of gender and parental roles in these films is resolved and contained by means of its juxtaposition with an evil, racialized threat. As M. Mehdi Semati argues, the “kinder, gentler” and family-oriented action films of the 1990s still rely upon the same racism and Orientalism of the past, perhaps even more deviously than their predecessors:

“The depiction of the Middle East in the 1990s is insidious in that these films promote the racism of the 1980s films in a kinder, gentler multicultural disguise” (235).

So while the films are getting more complicated in terms of gender relations and the importance of the family, these complications are almost always resolved (at least temporarily) through the imperative to kill the racialized villain who threatens the white family. This villain acts as a scapegoat through which the familial tensions of white USA can be if not solved then at least forgotten in the face of a more important threat to the family and nation.[6]

Emphasizing family and fatherhood in the action film, then, does more than display contemporary cultural concerns with gender and parenting. It also provides the easy metaphor of the family as the nation and the father as imperialist patriarch, solidifying the symbolic power of melodrama in the action cinema. The U.S. family has often acted as the representative of the nation, and threats to the nation carry the most symbolic weight when dramatized as concomitant threats to the family (for example, The Birth of a Nation (1915)). By hinging the power of U.S. masculinity on an ability to protect the family, therefore, the melodrama of terrorism in the action cinema articulates multiple threats to dominant U.S. culture. Films like True Lies and Collateral Damage project the U.S. male’s ability to both assert his independence/ dominance over the domestic sphere and simultaneously protect the family and nation from the onslaught of a form of racialized evil, supporting Linda Williams’ argument that melodrama is also a primary means in the United States of addressing issues of race (in Playing the Race Card). Indeed, the melodrama of terrorism insists not only upon legitimate/ illegitimate, good/ evil binary oppositions but the construction of a white United States that must be defended from dark Others. At stake in the action cinema, therefore, is the very dominance of the white U.S. male.

The growing importance of fatherhood in the action cinema also underscores the significance of imperialism in these films as they insist upon the paternal nature of U.S. violence. As Gallagher points out, the action film protagonist we now commonly see is a suffering patriarch. The hero’s failures as a father tend to escalate into crises of national security. He must learn throughout the film to juggle his domestic and heroic responsibilities. This provides an apt metaphor for the post-Vietnam suffering U.S. imperialist. Beset by a culture increasingly concerned with the racist implications of imperialism and wary of the prospect of military quagmires, the U.S. imperialist must assert his ability to balance spectacular violence with paternal benevolence. In a contemporary version of the white man’s burden, the action hero’s display of paternal violence legitimates the idea of a morally just patriarch/ imperialist. The action cinema offers a conception of imperialism supposedly based not on economic expansion but the unquestionably necessary protection of the nuclear family/ nation state. Thus the melodrama of terrorism in the action cinema makes morally legible continuing U.S. military dominance abroad.

It should be no surprise, then, that the preferred protector of this neo-imperialist order is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who offers an alternate discourse of masculinity and nationalism to many of his action star rivals. Much has been made, for example, of Schwarzenegger’s main rival in the 1980s, Sylvester Stallone, and the connections between the Rambo trilogy and national identity. Many critics argue that the Rambo films (especially the second and third, in which Rambo leaves rural Oregon and goes to Vietnam and then Afghanistan) allowed the U.S. male to reassert his decimated sense of identity after the loss of the Vietnam war and projected the need for continuing U.S. military intervention overseas (see for example Tasker, Spectacular Bodies 91-108 and Jeffords, Hard Bodies 28-52). Yet as William Warner argues, the Rambo films equally depict the guilt of U.S. masculinity in the wake of Vietnam:

“Rambo’s unconscious guilt leads him to accept masochistic positions which bring pain and humiliation as punishment for failure” (677).

The fetishistic display of Stallone’s muscled body in the Rambo films often takes place in the context of torture and pain, subjecting an idealized hyper-masculinity to the psychic guilt of Vietnam and the decline of U.S. prestige. This masochistic display, of course, represents another cultural conflict that the action genre solves through its sadistic formulas and conventions. According to Warner,

“Rambo’s histrionic display of his own suffering […] may be a kind of masquerade of weakness designed to assert the new (and all too old) prerogatives of the white American male” (686).

His display of feminized suffering sutures the audience further into a melodramatic celebration of Rambo’s (and the United States’) triumphant reclamation of white U.S. dominance and moral clarity. Nevertheless, the trilogy and Stallone remain embroiled in this sadomasochistic discourse of U.S. failure and redemption.

Schwarzenegger, however, transcends the debates surrounding a fractured post-Vietnam, U.S. masculinity:

“Unlike the tormented Stallone, the nonchalant Schwarzenegger is not haunted by the failure of Vietnam. Rather than dramatize old grievances or wallow in self-pity, [Schwarzenegger’s] Predator (1987) coolly reduces the war to the level of a video game monster from outerspace” (Hoberman 24).

While Stallone as Rambo looks to the past and opens old cultural wounds, Schwarzenegger’s star text offers a politics of optimistic techno-futurism (as the analogy to video games suggests), albeit one with a fascist nostalgia. Early projects such as the Conan films (1982, 1984) and Red Sonia (1985) displace this nostalgia into the realm of fantasy, yet they nonetheless celebrate the authoritarian spectacle of Schwarzenegger’s chiseled and smooth body. As J. Hoberman explains in his discussion of Schwarzenegger’s star text, “Unlike any previous star, he embraces and embodies the covertly admired Teutonic virtues” (25). He epitomizes an Aryan fantasy of white perfection. However, rather than offer his sculpted body to the torture of Vietnam as the ethnic Stallone does, Schwarzenegger’s body projects an undisturbed vision of authoritarianism.

Integral to this vision is the invocation of mechanized imagery in the display of Schwarzenegger’s body. His 1984 film The Terminator, in which he plays a cyborg with a singular and all-consuming mission to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), initiated this discourse of man-as-machine, relying upon his perfectly constructed muscles to connote mechanization. Yet as Hoberman notes, all Schwarzenegger’s films that display his body participate in this mechanization and project a thoroughly modern conception of the body:

"Mapped, quantified, evaluated, the Schwarzenegger torso is less a sex object than an object lesson, recapitulating the post-Renaissance transformation of the human body into something to be manipulated and rationalised, surveyed and regulated, subjected to the institutional discipline of prisons, schools, hospitals." (24)

Thus Schwarzenegger’s use of fetishized, high-tech weaponry in his action films represents an extension of his quantified and mechanical body. He personifies a futurist authoritarian model of the human machine.

Yet throughout the 90s, Schwarzenegger’s star text gradually embraced a softening of his hardened image, primarily through the construction of Schwarzenegger as the ideal loving-yet-authoritarian father. This process is explicitly dramatized in Kindergarten Cop (1990) where Schwarzenegger plays a hard-nosed cop who goes undercover as a kindergarten teacher, imposes discipline on the classroom, and learns to love his newfound fatherly role. In Junior (1994), furthermore, Schwarzenegger comedically carries a child to term in a gender-bending science experiment, highlighting both the feminization of the action hero and an emphasis on fatherhood in Schwarzenegger’s star text. Perhaps most pertinently, in Terminator 2 (1991), Schwarzenegger reprises his cyborg role from the first Terminator; but in the second film his mission is to protect Sarah Connor’s son John, the future leader of the human race in a war against machines, from a more postmodern liquid/ machine killer. The Schwarzenegger cyborg humanizes himself by learning human behavior from John, and in one scene Sarah notes to herself that the cyborg is a perfect, reliable father. He even sacrifices his existence for the good of the human race by lowering himself (and the technology that could destroy the world within him) into a vat of melted steel.

An example of Jeffords’ notion of “individualism as fathering” (discussed above), the Schwarzenegger star text in the last decade has frequently relocated its power and authority into the domestic realm of fathering, revealing that, as Jeffords explains it, the

“emotionally whole and physically healed man of the eighties wants nothing more than to be a father, not a warrior cop, after all” (“The Big Switch” 200).

(Incidentally, it is during this process that rumors began to spread of Schwarzenegger’s intent to enter U.S. politics, perhaps indicating that this authoritarian/paternal discourse helped solidify his successful bid to become the ultimate patriarch: a state leader).

(Continued: Reinstating the moral occult)

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