Dir: Andrew Davis. US. 2002. 108mins.

If it were not for the September 11 terrorist attacks, Collateral Damage - Arnold Schwarzenegger's latest action vehicle - would have been dismissed by critics as yet another popcorn picture, using terrorism as a cheap plot device to advance its gung-ho reactionary politics. However, that momentous event, which pushed the film's theatrical release back from early October 2001 to February 2002, has ironically put this preposterous action-adventure under greater scrutiny. It also discloses not only how naïve, but also how silly, American filmmakers are when it comes to dealing with issues of international terrorism and politics. In theme and look, Collateral Damage is a retro 1980s movie, with the same right-wing ideology as Sylvester Stallone's Rambo, along with a touch of Clint Eastwood's 1970s Dirty Harry films thrown into the pot. A low point in the career of Andrew Davis, who has been responsible for such stylish entertainment as The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder, Collateral Damage should enjoy a strong opening and then solid run at the box office due to the lack of action films in the marketplace and the curiosity factor: patrons want to know what the fuss over this Warner Bros. picture was all about.

In the 'new' film, Schwarzenegger plays Gordy Brewer, a good father, a good husband and a good firefighter. It's quickly established that, as a Los Angeles Fire Department captain, Gordy works in difficult situations, where he must comfort injured and frightened people. What the survivors and the victims' families remember most is not Gordy's strength or professionalism, but his gentle touch and sincere concern.

In the first scene, Gordy is uncharacteristically late for an appointment with his wife and son, who are waiting for him in a shopping mall at a Downtown high-rise building. On his way to greet them, he exchanges a look with a strange-looking traffic cop. Just as Gordy spots his anxious family, a bomb explosion in a nearby vehicle kills his wife and child and showers the whole area with debris and shattered glass. The explosion is credited to El Lobo, or 'The Wolf', a "rebel leader" in Colombia's decades-long civil war, whose targets are members of the US Colombian Consulate and American intelligence agents.

The opening reel, which is the only one with a vague semblance to reality, depicts a grieving Gordy, who blames himself for the senseless death of his innocent family. His only consolation for the loss is the hope that justice will prevail and that The Wolf will be stopped before he strikes again - but, alas, the audience knows better. Indeed, weeks later, as the tragic event becomes yesterday's news, Gordy watches helplessly as the official inquiry drags on, until it comes to a frustrating standstill.

What's an action hero and real man to do' In the manner of Clint Eastwood in his Dirty Harry movies and Charles Bronson in his Death Wish series, Gordy decides to take matters in his own hands. Against the advice of friends, the FBI, and repeated warnings from CIA agent Brandt (a miscast Elias Koteas), Gordy sets out on a one-man mission to track down The Wolf.

The quest takes Gordy deep into the inhospitable jungle terrain of war-torn Colombia. It goes without saying that his plan has little chance of succeeding, that he doesn't speak the language or know the landscape, and, most important of all, that he doesn't care about the risks or odds against him. In the film's least credible reel, Gordy acts like Rambo: an obsessed man with nothing to lose, committed to vengeance and restoring his family's honour.

Some scary, comic relief is provided by Felix (Leguizamo), a high-strung, unreliable man who supervises the production of cocaine on a vast rundown jungle plantation, Gordy's first stop in his mission. Indie actor Turturro shows up as Armstrong, a Canadian expatriate opportunist, who's employed by the guerrillas as a mechanic and hence holds a desirable item for Gordy: a special pass to cross into rebel-held territory.

As with every Schwarzenegger film, children play a prominent role, based on demographic and commercial, rather than benevolent philosophical considerations: a large number of the star's fans are youngsters. The script goes out of its way to create a symmetry, compensating Gordy's loss of wife and boy with a mysterious woman, Selena (Italian actress Francesca Neri) and her adopted son Mauro, who Gordy first meets in a remote village, and then periodically encounters elsewhere.

It turns out that Selena came to South America in her youth, fell in love with a Colombian and adopted his country as her own. Despite suspicions that any moviegoer would have, Gordy continues to trust Selena, perceiving her as a woman who's trying to raise a child alone in a combat zone. With his familial and paternal instincts reawakened, Gordy protects her and the boy in the same way he would have guarded his own family.

In the last reel, after several imprisonments and escapes from paramilitary roadblocks, Gordy's relentless pursuit takes him back to the streets of Washington DC, where the bomber is about to strike again. The visual style and technical credits, which are mediocre for the most part (by the standards of Davis' action films), improve substantially, when the locale shifts from Colombia's countryside to urban America.

With shrewd career management that benefited from the then prevalent political ambience of the Reagan and Bush regimes, Schwarzenegger became an agreeable movie star. In the 1980s, Schwarzenegger was a comic strip hero and a theme park all by himself, which is why he was emblematic of the decade's action-fantasies. His saving grace as an action hero was his awareness and humour of how unreal and overblown his body (a pumper of iron) and image (a hulk with a self-mocking grin) were. Schwarzenegger always played it both ways: His beyond reality dimensions were the source of reel strength as well as goofy humour in his pictures. It took risks and confidence to build and market, and then mock the same screen persona, and still be popular with the masses.

However, times have changed and now in his mid-fifties, Schwarzenegger (like our other action heroes, Stallone and Harrison Ford) is simply too old for a credible, light on his feet hero. Moreover, the new picture casts Schwarzenegger in a "dramatically serious" role, lacking the "witty" one-liners that have marked his previous outings, such as Terminator 2's "hasta la vista, baby," or the scene in the lesser vehicle, Eraser, when after shooting an alligator, he says with bravado: "You're luggage!"

In his action films, Schwarzenegger was not so much the lead actor as the vehicle itself, a talking machine designed to fight a variety of villains in rough terrains. In this respect, Collateral Damage is no exception: it provides a shallow tour of Colombia as a "heart of darkness" foreign territory to be conquered by brawny American heroes. However, the new political context makes Collateral Damage an anachronistic compendium picture, in urgent need of catching up with the changing conventions of American action films as well as American foreign policy.

To be sure, the contempt for the "unfairness" of American law and inefficient bureaucracy in dealing with criminals has always been integral to the effectiveness of right-wing action features, which made Schwarzenegger and Stallone movie stars in the first place. But seen in the post-September 11 settings, Collateral Damage