"COLLATERAL DAMAGE", ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER, MOVIE, POST-SEPTEMBER 11

A million dollars can't buy you happiness and it can't buy you love, but it can buy you plenty of acceptance.

A case study in this law of economics is provided this week by native Austrian Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose new videogame, "Collateral Damage," finally opens on movie screens this weekend after being shelved--some had hoped permanently--after the September 11 attack on America.

In the movie, Arnold plays Gordy Brewer, a heroic Los Angeles firefighter who becomes a Bronsonesque, rebel-killing vigilante after watching his wife and son die in a terrorist bombing of the Colombian consulate (or his kid's doctor's office, which is inexplicably in the same building).

The film was originally scheduled to open on Oct. 5 but was delayed "out of respect for the victims and their families," Warner Bros. Pictures said in a statement issued on Sept 12.

Though no one had actually seen the film yet, the media decided that its terror-infused plot was too similar to the attack on New York and the Pentagon. The movie was just too damn "real" to be released. Art had not merely imitated life--it had anticipated life--and for that, it must be punished.

What, exactly, were the producers afraid of? That the American public was so scarred by the events of September 11 that it could not accept the similarities between "Collateral Damage" and actual events? That, in light of the terror attack on the United States, the moviegoing public would be appalled by such "real-life" elements as a 55-year-old firefighter who never seems to get bruised no matter how many automatic weapons are fired at him in sustained bursts, that he could survive a plunge down a 200-foot waterfall or that he could hitch a ride by holding onto the underside of a moving truck?

Silly, right? Who wouldn't believe that?

Well, as so often happens in America, events that we think will alter us permanently tend to do so for only four months. "Collateral Damage" is no longer part of the collateral damage of September 11. And thanks to some overtime put in by the boys in the Warner Bros. marketing department--and those million little bills that Arnold donated to the Twin Towers Fund, which benefits the widows and children of lost New York firefighters--most of America will soon forget that this movie was once too gruesome, too graphic, too violent to be released to the public.

The million dollars also bought Schwarzenegger the tireless devotion of New York's former mayor Rudy Giuliani, the ultimate keeper of the September 11 faith. Even though he usually recoils from even the faintest odor of September 11 profiteering, the way Giuliani was squiring Arnold around New York this week was right out of a Hollywood movie. But I'm not talking about "On the Town." It was more like "Pretty Woman"--with Rudy playing the Julia Roberts role.

Naturally, in a city with such deeply entrenched hatreds and outsized egos as New York, virtually everyone who had access to a printing press or fax machine was appalled--appalled!--at the mayor's apparent descent into an extremely old profession that he spent most of his eight years in office trying to eliminate from the island of Manhattan.

You could almost hear the cynicism in the opera-loving Rudy's voice when he emerged from the Ziegfield Theater on Wednesday night and proclaimed the picture as "a classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movie." (Notice that the mayor didn't call it "a classic movie that happens to star Arnold Schwarzenegger," but a "classic Arnold Schwarzenegger movie." Maybe the mayor should consider a second job as a movie critic; I'd love to see his quote appear in ads for the next Adam Sandler film: "If you want to see a great dumb comedy, this is the one for you. I mean, this is dumb comedy at its idiotic best!"

The president of the city's police union, Pat Lynch, issued a statement condemning the mayor for going commando with Arnold: "While we have nothing against Mr. Schwarzenegger and his movie [You don't? Well, there goes your credibility!], we consider it exploitative and in bad taste to promote the film by associating it with the tragedy of September 11."

A spokesman for the city's EMTs, Bob Ungar, went further, saying, "It's disgusting that a movie opening would exploit the tragedy, firefighters and their families."

My New York Post colleague Leonard Greene even pointed out that Giuliani ruthlessly went after street vendors selling pirated World Trade Center souvenirs near Ground Zero, yet isn't afraid to shill for a movie that is marketing itself as a patriotic concomitant to September 11.

I was steamed at Rudy, too. But now that I've actually seen "Collateral Damage" (and was refused a refund for those two hours of my life), I'm actually more peeved that Warner Bros. delayed the release of the film at all.

This may sound strange, but if "Collateral Damage," which features a lust for vengeance so raw that it drives a man whose entire home looks like a Pottery Barn catalogue to vigilantism in the jungles of Colombia, had come out just after September 11, it would've actually meant something. Even though the Brewer character wins in the end (hey, I'm not spoiling the movie for you), his over-the-top, cartoonish, thuggish, illogical anger would have reminded Americans that not everything can be solved by violence--even when it's committed in the name of righteousness.

But coming out now--when America is self-satisfied because we're kicking such ass in the War on Terror--the movie feels melodramatic and (a first for a Schwarzenegger picture, I'm sure) cliche. The hypocrisy of Brewer's blood lust is lost.

Perhaps the filmmakers were most afraid that, with Americans' sensitivities heightened after September 11, someone would notice that the movie has a subtle, but definite, subversiveness to it. At one point in the film, when Brewer is face to face with the Colombian terrorist who killed his family, the bomber likens himself to America.

"Are we so different?" he asks. "We both kill for a cause we believe in."

I know Americans weren't ready to hear that on Oct. 5. I'm not sure we're ready to hear that even now.