Arnold Up Against Bruce

The testosterone level on movie screens this week is so high that you may feel like a proverbial 90-pound weakling before you can even get through the credits. For your investment, you’ll get nothing but pain from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s moronic Collateral Damage , but you’ll get more thrill from the kill in Bruce Willis’ Hart’s War . It’s your call.

Hart’s War is an exciting, thoughtful and adrenaline-pumping war picture that is provocative and different. It’s not about war, but rather the courage and decency of American soldiers trapped in a German P.O.W. camp. Expertly directed by Gregory Hoblit, Hart’s War tells the gripping story of a 24-year-old lieutenant, Tommy Hart (sensitively and realistically played by the riveting Irish actor Colin Farrell), who is ambushed and captured in Belgium, stripped naked and tortured, then shipped to a grim prison where the prisoner-in-command is Col. William McNamara (Bruce Willis). Tommy, the son of a U.S. Senator and a law student at Yale before his tour of duty, has never seen any action, and he is not only confused but terrified in a camp where his sense of civility and fair play are severely tested amidst the brutality, violence and racism of Russian and American prisoners beneath his social station who have been reduced to the status of desperate animals.

When a black pilot is murdered in the stalag, Col. McNamara orders the reluctant, inexperienced Tommy to defend the victim’s best friend, an accused black officer with no motive, in a crude trial under the watchful eyes of the dangerous Nazi commandant (Marcel Iures, in a scene-stealing performance much colder and scarier than Otto Preminger’s in Stalag 17 ). Tommy is a better defense attorney that anyone predicted, but the plot boomerangs when he discovers that the court-martial is just a sham–a diversionary cover-up for McNamara’s secret plan to bomb a German munitions factory and escape. Tommy’s dilemma: Should he let an innocent man die, or blow the whistle and sacrifice the lives of all the men who are digging a tunnel to freedom?

The tension is as palpable as the moral issues involved in the probing and disturbing screenplay by Billy Ray and Terry George. Great acting dominates, and the realism of life in the stalag, based on eyewitness accounts by reliable World War II P.O.W.’s, is as honest as it is gruesome. Hart’s War , based on a novel by John Katzenbach about the actual experiences of his father Nicholas, who survived Stalag Luft III to become U.S. Attorney General under President Lyndon Johnson, is a love letter to the men who served and suffered in World War II.

Bruce Willis, leaner and craggier than usual, is billed as the star, but he doesn’t have much to do but grit his teeth and look rigid–until the surprise ending, where his true patriotism and honor are revealed in a shocking dénouement that leaves you stunned. The Nazis always have the best roles in these epics, and Mr. Iures, the distinguished Romanian stage star who made an indelibly creepy impression in Interview with a Vampire , almost steals the picture as the complicated and unpredictable German colonel with a fondness for Duke Ellington and Mark Twain. But the centerpiece is really Colin Farrell, a dazzling actor with one of the best faces in films, who shows the bravery, terror, sacrifice and sense of duty behind barbed wire and guard towers that the recorded experiences of the sick, injured and freezing camp survivors describe so vividly in books like Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation and William Manchester’s Goodbye, Darkness . There’s plenty of action, suspense and male bonding here, but it’s the heroism of these World War II G.I.’s in captivity, and what they endured to keep their sanity and patriotism alive, that makes Hart’s War such a noble and touching experience for all.

Expect no high-minded idealism from Collateral Damage . If there was one good thing that came out of the 9/11 calamity, it was the postponement of the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger film. It’s finally here, like a land mine in the middle of Times Square. Hollywood was worried about the wrong things. They should have been asking if anyone has the stomach for another movie that is just plain lousy.

Ugly, predictable and dumb as dirt, Collateral Damage begins with Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Los Angeles firefighter rescuing people trapped in a flaming stairwell. Any connection to 9/11 ends there. When his wife and son are blown up by a Colombian terrorist called El Lobo (the Wolf), Arnold be mad. Loaded for bear, the macho juggernaut in need of subtitles rips the IV out of his arm, treks through the jungles of Panama, plunges down a waterfall that makes Niagara look like the Plaza Hotel water fountain, and invades the guerrilla zone in Colombia.

See Arnold blast his way out of a maximum-security prison with a chainsaw! See Arnold blow up a cocaine factory with gasoline in the light bulbs! See Arnold tackle an exploding motorcycle! See Arnold rip a man’s ear off with his bare teeth! Lacking even the ability to ask “Which way to the men’s room?” with any reasonable degree of conviction that might pass for acting, this indestructible rockpile of snarling cement dodges an army of machine guns, survives savage beatings with nothing more than a Band-Aid, and leads El Lobo’s wife to Washington, D.C., where she tries to blow up the State Department. Thunderous music telegraphs each forthcoming disaster, while the script and direction appear to have been phoned in from a nearby Holiday Inn.

With anti-terrorist rage reaching fever pitch, this kind of numbing nonsense may spell big box office, but the real terrorists are the greedy hacks who peddle rotten movies to capitalize on America’s current fear factor, and the only collateral damage the gullible victims who pay money to sit through them in the name of entertainment.

Short Takes

Shakespeare gets slam-dunked again in the abysmal Scotland, Pa. , a trailer-trash version of Macbeth that should be avoided like an Elizabethan pox. Joe and Pat McBeth (James Le Gros and Maura Tierney) are a waitress and short-order cook in a greasy fast-food joint with ambitions to operate a traveling French-fry truck with chicken bits and dipping sauce. First they must murder Duncan, the owner, by frying him alive in deep fat. Not clever enough to be a satire and not creatively sound enough to be a viable revisionist drama, this grubby low-budget sendup of 70’s pop culture was “inspired” by writer-director Billy Morrissette’s teenage experiences working at a small-town Dairy Queen. Hopefully his old job is still waiting for him there …. Wendigo is an arty thriller with two fine actors, Patricia Clarkson and Jake Weber, playing a couple whose idyllic weekend in a borrowed Connecticut country house is plunged into murder and madness by demented deer hunters. The “wendigo” is a spirit doll presented to their small son by an imaginary Indian that can conjure different forms, like tornadoes and blizzards. Tragedy ensues. The two leads are almost good enough to camouflage the dopey plot, but so much naturalistic small talk, delivered in almost muffled exchanges, eventually has a lulling effect. Director Larry Fessenden has a creepy style and the camerawork is impressive, but I’d like to see what he does with a bigger budget and a better script.