Selena makes a pathos-filled decision to betray her husband to the U.S. government.

But Gordy’s paternalism is not tempered here with enough typical masculine strength. Departing from action genre conventions, Gordy lets numerous government agents do the dirty work while he caters domestically to the needs of Selena’s son.

Gordy keeps Selena’s son with him, acting as the boy's protector...

Meanwhile, Selena must choose between her radical ideology and her son. She chooses her ideology and leaves her son behind to die in the real attack she has planned against the State Department.

Via flashback, Gordy finally “sees” what he was missing all along. Selena is El Lobo. She is the mastermind. Here Gordy sees what he couldn’t have on the day his family was killed: Selena was there orchestrating the attack, sexualized in a blonde wig.

Selena used a cell phone to detonate the bomb that killed Gordy’s family.

Now she activates a bomb that she's hidden in her son’s dinosaur (note the red light in the eye).

Luckily, Gordy finally fulfills his role both as action hero and father. He tosses the bomb out the window and protects the little boy from a monstrous mother.

The bomb detonates above the building. Did this image remind viewers of the news footage of the 9/11 attacks?

Selena, her masquerade as caring mother over, reveals the true, murderous nature of international terrorists.

Brandt gets what's coming to him, thanks to Selena's display of violence.

Now back within action film conventions, the hero finds an appropriate weapon to use against the villains: a fireman's axe.

Selena and Claudio atop their motorcycle attempt to make their getaway. Again, note Selena's complete transformation into a violent extremist. Her evolution into the femme fatale teaches viewers to revise their own and Gordy's empathy with her as a sympathetic victim.

Selena and Claudio see they have fallen into Gordy's trap. Appropriately he uses fire against them.

Flames engulf Selena and Claudio. Gordy finally gets his spectacular revenge now that the narrative has erased any moral ambiguity about international terrorism.

In a stereotypical action film moment, Gordy barely escapes from the inferno he created.

Gordy finishes off Claudio with an axe. The viewer is no longer uneasy with Gordy's brutal killing of Claudio. As the narrative reinstates moral legibility, we no longer question the need for spectacular violence to combat international terrorism.

Gordy's reward. Moments after slaying the boy's parents, Gordy scoops up Selena and Claudio's son. The child is thankful to be in the arms of his muscled, white protector. As the paternal imperialist wins out, we also accept the necessity of the United States' "benevolent" and fatherly involvement in other countries.


Reinstating the moral occult

This paternal trajectory in Schwarzenegger’s star text continues in Collateral Damage as the film centers on the dual role of action hero and father. The early scenes in the film, after all, establish Schwarzenegger’s character Gordy as the perfect father. Not only is he a fireman who risks his life to save others (as depicted in the opening scene), but we also see Gordy helping his young son construct a sci-fi aircraft, emphasizing his loving attentiveness and alluding to the Schwarzenegger-as-action hero star text: the toy aircraft somewhat resembles the metallic endoskeleton of the android from the Terminator films. One of the few glimpses we get of Schwarzenegger’s aging yet still impressive naked torso, furthermore, comes in an early scene where he playfully showers with his son, juxtaposing his hyper-masculine physique with the everyday domesticity of fatherhood.

To complement this emphasis on the action hero and fatherhood, the pivotal early scene in Collateral Damage in which Gordy’s wife and son are killed depicts the threat of terrorism as a threat to both the family and the nation. The scene interweaves through parallel editing two storylines: Gordy meeting his wife and son at a crowded urban plaza and the terrorist (disguised as a policeman) placing and detonating his bomb as U.S. military and CIA officials enter the Colombian consulate in Los Angeles. The crowded plaza, of course is just on the other side of a thin glass wall from the consulate’s lobby, so as Gordy’s family waits in the plaza, we see the terrorist place his bomb (hidden in a police motorcycle) and the arriving motorcade of generals and government agents. We then cut back and forth between Gordy's arriving to meet his family and the government officials' arriving at the black marble consulate lobby. A scene of traditional nuclear family domesticity is structured into a scene of important governmental and military business, emphasizing the symbolic connection between familial security and national security. As the bomb detonates and tears through both the lobby and the crowded plaza on the other side of the glass wall, an attack on U.S. security literally destroys a typical U.S. family.

Ironically, Gordy’s wife and son are labeled as “collateral damage” because they are not the intended targets. Yet it is their deaths that bear the symbolic weight of the attack and their deaths that provide the narrative conflict for the film. Collateral Damage, then, does more than equate national security and familial security. It uses violence against the nuclear family as a melodramatic trope to enact the nation’s peril at the hands of terrorism.

This scene, therefore, depicts Gordy's failure as a patriarch: he fails to protect his wife and child from danger and, even worse, was perhaps partially responsible for their deaths. The film establishes that, as the mother and child wait for him, Gordy arrives late at the plaza. The mother repeatedly looks at her watch and says aloud, “Where is he?” And as Gordy notes melodramatically later in the film, if he had picked them up on time they would have lived and the tragedy would have been averted. Although this seems a small offense, it nonetheless affirms that

“threats to the domestic space occur [in contemporary action films] because of preoccupied or inattentive fathers” (Gallagher 214).

Gordy's tardiness and failure at a simple domestic task place his family (and, by implication, the nation) in grave danger.

Perhaps the more obvious failure in this scene, however, is Gordy’s failure as an action hero. In a crucial sequence, Gordy arrives at the consulate and parks illegally, prompting him to address the terrorist disguised as a policeman and note that he’ll only be there a few minutes. The cop/terrorist, of course, nods politely but pays closer attention to the arriving government motorcade. Gordy hesitates for a moment, looks back at the strangely quiet policeman, but turns away and waves to his family. In the world of the action film, the hero often evinces a preternatural instinct for danger, an uncanny ability to see what others do not. Yet here the audience must experience the dramatic irony of Schwarzenegger's coming face to face with his nemesis and not recognizing him or the threat he poses.

These failures are symbolically represented in the scene by the visual emasculation of Gordy. As the bomb detonates and Gordy sees that his family is in danger, the moment when the action-hero-as-father must step into action, a distracted taxi driver veers off the road and crashes into Gordy, sending him flying through the air and knocking him unconscious. At the moment he is most needed to fulfill his duties, Gordy is rendered impotent and inert in a genre that rewards only action and movement. And as the taxi literally comes between Gordy and his heroic obligation, we see in two different shots that his sunglasses are knocked off his face and sent flying through the air. The images of his glasses spinning helplessly against the blue sky backdrop points back to and emphasizes Gordy’s previous inability to “see” what was in front of him, his failure perceive the threat to his family and the nation.

This scene, therefore, establishes both the narrative and thematic imperative of the film: Gordy must be redeemed for his failures by seeking justice for both his family and the nation, whose representatives decide that the political situation in Colombia is too sensitive to authorize the CIA agent Brandt to seek out El Lobo. It is at this point in the narrative, however, that Gordy’s righteous claim to vengeance — the melodramatic imperative to vilify and brutalize the terrorists, thereby reinforcing the validity of the family/nation — is tempered by the moral ambiguity of U.S. intervention in a Colombian civil war, as discussed above. The action and violence are few and far between, perhaps reflecting the uneasiness of the film’s moral position in light of its attempt to discuss the terrorists’ ideologies. In fact, the only major extended action sequence before the film’s climax is directed at the cocaine processing plant the rebels use to financially support their war, an easy target for moral violence given the many vilifying discourses of Colombian drug trafficking in U.S. culture.

The moral complexities that engender this uneasy and infrequent violence in an action film, however, only solidify the action hero's fatherly instinct. This is seen as Gordy comes tantalizingly close to fulfilling his murderous mission. After terroristically placing a homemade bomb in the home of Claudio, Gordy walks away and sees a woman and her son walking down the street, the same woman and child that he paternally protected in a public market earlier in the film. Having to choose between warning the mother and child (and thus alerting Claudio to the threat) and letting them die in order to enact his revenge, Gordy chooses the former and no one is hurt in the explosion. The wife and child, furthermore, turn out to be Claudio’s wife and son; Gordy’s warning preserved the integrity of their nuclear family. Although a contrived and clichéd plot twist — the vengeful hero must consider the implications of his actions and make the moral decision that the villain did not — this scene locates the morality of the contemporary action hero in his role as father. It is Gordy’s paternalism and devotion to the family that give him the moral prerogative rather than a clear-cut vilification of terrorism.

The film constructs Gordy’s humanitarianism, however, as another obstacle to be overcome. Later in the film Gordy convinces Claudio’s wife, Selena, to run away to the United States with him and inform against her husband. Bringing her son along, Selena is taken to the State Department where she must identify which major Washington landmark Claudio is currently planning to attack. Staging this as the melodramatic and pathos-filled decision of a wife to choose the good of the society over her loyalty to her family, the film seems to be denying the possibility of an action film climax, focusing instead on the ability of an army of U.S. government agents to locate and stop Claudio, as Gordy passively and domestically tends to the needs of Selena and her son. The moral ambiguities seem to have trumped the vengeful and righteous imperative to ultra-violence. Instead of a merger of the action hero and father, we instead get a sensitive and feminized patriarch who lets the bureaucracy do the violent grunt work for him.

This potentially un-spectacular ending, however, is only a clever ruse. Noticing that Selena shares a unique gesticular tick with the masked El Lobo, Gordy redeems himself as an action hero by solving the puzzle posed by the narrative: it is Selena behind El Lobo’s mask. She is and always has been the terrorist mastermind, and Claudio’s potential bombing is only a diversion for Selena’s attack from deep within the State Department. She has used Gordy’s paternal sensitivity and his moral confusion against him.

If, however, in the opening scenes Gordy fails to see the danger right in front of him, he now recognizes his nemesis and redeems himself. With an emphasis on Gordy’s perception, the film displays in flashback the visual clues leading up to this twist. And, illustrating Gordy’s preternatural sense of memory, he sees what the audience themselves only got a split-second glimpse of: Selena was present at the attack that killed Gordy’s family, disguised (and sexualized) in a blonde wig and using a cell-phone to detonate the fatal blast. Gordy, aware now that a bomb is hidden in Selena’s son’s toy dinosaur, averts the attack as he couldn’t in the beginning. The film literally displays for both Gordy and the audience the solution to the puzzle and the resolution of the moral ambiguity. After resolving these anxieties and celebrating Gordy’s intuition, the narrative can then fully embrace the moral clarity of the action genre and melodrama. And we have no qualms with Gordy quite appropriately using a fireman’s axe to slay both Selena and Claudio.

This ending “solves” Gordy’s and the audience’s dilemma regarding terrorism on a number of levels. Most explicitly, it denies the previous implication of the film that even terrorists are part of traditional families that need to be protected. Just before Gordy recognizes Selena as El Lobo, Selena tries to get her son to join her on a trip to the restroom, a trip that we learn retrospectively is designed to aid her and her son’s escape from the explosion. Yet when Gordy offers to watch her son, and she realizes that the boy could not be taken with her without raising suspicion, Selena leaves him behind, an act which we learn later amounts to the sacrifice of one’s child for a radical ideology. Selena becomes, in other words, a politically monstrous mother, a woman whose commitment to terrorism violates some of the most serious feminine taboos. Rather than fulfilling her expected role as an apolitical woman, she instead reveals herself to be an uncaring mother. This is accentuated after Selena is discovered to be El Lobo, and her demure and feminine personality gives way to a display of hyper-masculine martial arts brutality and murder. Any pretensions to humanity and familial values on the part of terrorists, in other words, are merely acts intended to lure Gordy (and the nation) into a dangerous empathy. Terrorists, instead, unnaturally disregard even the lives of their own offspring.

By implication, Claudio and Selena’s rejection of “natural” parental roles, their masquerade as loving parents, calls into question their claims to a nationalist ideology. Just as Gordy’s duty to his family and duty to his nation are one in the same, Claudio’s and Selena’s disregard for their child casts them as unfit representatives of nationalism. They do not embody the traditional values that both families and nations are supposedly held together with and definitely could not act as a wholesome national parental unit the way, for example, Ronald and Nancy Reagan could. Just as Claudio’s appropriation of a symbol of state-sponsored authority in the opening scene — the policeman’s uniform — is an unnatural and dangerous masquerade, his donning of military uniforms throughout the film becomes a simulation of nationalism rather than an expression of true, paternal, nationalist leadership, as illustrated in an earlier, grotesque scene where Claudio forces a poisonous snake down the throat of an ineffective subordinate. This typical, evil, movie villain brutality underscores the “true” nature of terrorism: underneath a superficial nationalist rhetoric, no matter how justified the grievances, lies a sinister sadism.

In response to this assertion of terrorism as melodramatic evil, the film offers Gordy’s paternal, imperialist authority as the solution to the many dilemmas and ambiguities raised. Deploying a common trope of the action genre, Collateral Damage sets Gordy’s benevolent paternalism in opposition to the ineffective or inhumane efforts of governmental bureaucracy as represented by the CIA agent Brandt (who is unceremoniously executed by Selena in the final scenes). Dismissing the atrocities of U.S. imperialism in Colombia as the effects of Brandt’s overzealous and cynical actions, the film taps into Schwarzenegger’s star text; the narrative positions Gordy as a morally sensitive yet authoritarian (and violent when absolutely needed) model of U.S. participation in developing nations. Gordy’s reward for serving his nation and revenging his family, after all, is Claudio’s and Selena’s Colombian child, who happens to be the same age as Gordy’s son, and who welcomes Gordy’s embrace with open arms despite the fact that Gordy only minutes previously slaughtered the boy’s parents with an axe. Participating in one of cinema’s most pervasive tropes of imperialism and Western hegemony, Collateral Damage exemplifies Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s observation,

“The in loco parentis ideology of paternalistic gradualism assumed the necessity of White trusteeship” (140).

Literally replacing the Colombian boy’s biological parents with a muscled white patriarch, Collateral Damage demonstrates how the action hero-as-father uses the vilification of terrorism to justify necessary but violent interventions overseas.

The film’s depictions of the moral ambiguities of terrorism and imperialism, therefore, dramatized small but significant cultural concerns pre-9/11 that the good/evil binary opposition represented by terrorism was inadequate in conceptualizing the problem. Gordy’s quest into the heart of the Colombian jungle allegorically presents not just his psychological investigation of the need for personal revenge but a national investigation of the brutalities of imperialism. Resolving these concerns for both Gordy and the audience, however, Collateral Damage vehemently reasserts the need for good/evil rhetoric and a paternalistic interest in foreign nations.


When Collateral Damage was finally released in February of 2002, several reviewers chastised the film for being “tired and outdated” (Major) or a “relic from an earlier (if not kindler and gentler) time” (Ebert). It was seen as a film that “founders on its pre-Sept. 11 assumptions” (Weiskind). One reviewer even notes that, while many other action film stars from the 1980s and 90s have distanced themselves from the genre,

“Only Schwarzenegger, unmovable as Atlas, struggles against the advancing years and changing times” (Berardinelli).

The consensus seemed to be that Collateral Damage represents an outmoded approach to terrorism, that the U.S. public in the wake of 9/11 wanted a more subtle and sensitive approach to the issue of violence and terrorism than can be offered by the spectacle and excess of the action film genre. As David Grove laments, “Will we ever be able to enjoy mindless action ever again?”

While it seems true that Collateral Damage is an outdated addition to the U.S. discourse on terrorism and violence, I don’t think that is it outdated in the way that many of the reviews described. I don’t think that it fails to address a now more politically sensitive and complex U.S. public, despite the numerous and unsubstantiated claims that the U.S. people are somehow more mature and knowledgeable about international terrorism post 9/11. Rather, I think that Collateral Damage simply fails to conform to the new “realities” of the United States’ hegemonic discourse of terrorism, realities that call for even more direct and violent military action and a more vehement articulation of the good/evil rhetoric. Reviewer Neil Smith seems to have acknowledged this when he observed that,

“there’s something slightly distasteful about Arnold [Schwarzenegger] taking matters into his own hands and winning the war against terrorism single-handedly. Such reactionary Reaganism may have made its name two decades ago, but now it just seems naïve, trite, and even a little dangerous.”

As the current administration focuses its rhetoric on garnering support for widespread military intervention and the toppling of states that allegedly support terror networks, the emphasis on individual action in Collateral Damage and the depiction of government bureaucracy as either ruthless (Brandt) or cowardly (Brandt’s politician bosses) doesn’t seem to fit in with the dominant perspective on terrorism. The film, in short, doesn’t go far enough in advocating a broad military deployment against terrorism.

Collateral Damage seems outdated post 9/11, moreover, because it fails to compete with the mass-mediated images of the September 11 attacks. The major cultural work of Collateral Damage is the staging of U.S. cultural anxieties surrounding international terrorism, and then resolving these anxieties by instituting a moral prerogative to excessive violence and to the nation's acting as patriarchal caretaker of infantialized developing countries. It is a melodramatic articulation of moral legibility. Yet what Collateral Damage does clumsily in two hours is accomplished succinctly and powerfully in 90 seconds of home video footage of two planes veering into the twin towers. These images and all the others of the attacks that have come to saturate U.S. culture have taken on such symbolic importance that, by comparison, Collateral Damage seems not too violent or too insensitive but too ignorant about the “true” and evil nature of international terrorism.

The myriad images of the attacks have become synonymous with the pathetic suffering of the nation and our own virtuous vision of the United States as the suffering hero. Using the melodramatic mode more efficiently and powerfully than Collateral Damage, they can convince us far better that we Americans are essentially good and terrorists are unquestionably evil. In short, in the drama of nation building and violent imperialism, Collateral Damage took the stage just a few months too late.

(Continued: Notes)

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