Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s post-Governor career is an interesting, if not wholly successful, mix of a little bit of new and a whole lot of desperate clinging to the past. The former will be on display in the upcoming Maggie where he plays father to a daughter infected with a zombie virus, and the latter has been evident in The Last Stand, Escape Plan, his appearances in The Expendables franchise, and upcoming sequels to past triumphs. His action films have been cartoonishly unrealistic and as interested in being “fun” as they’ve been in being exciting.
His latest film though is a far more serious affair. Deadly violent, incredibly gory, and saturated with themes that echo both Schwarzenegger’s past as an action hero and the real life cost of fighting evil. Unfortunately, David Ayer‘s Sabotage also wants to be fun, and therein exists just one of its missteps.
John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Schwarzenegger) is head of an elite DEA assault team populated by the manliest of men and one gung-ho woman. Their latest bust involves infiltrating a known drug dealer dwelling, and it ends with numerous dead bad guys, one of their own down, and $10 million in dirty money missing. The team brazenly steals and hides the cash during the bust, but when they return for their payout the cash is gone. An investigation and suspensions follow, but when the team returns to work they find themselves prey to a violent predator with a taste for the grotesque. It’s the end of days and their past sins have come due.
The team is suspected of the theft when the FBI notices that precisely $10 million is missing — an impressive deduction seeing as Breacher and his crew literally blew up the giant stack of cash they leave behind after swiping their finder’s fee — and they’re given the raw deal of six months of inactive duty. The investigation is eventually dropped, and the team that has stayed hungry on a diet of drugs, booze, and strip clubs is returned to the job. It’s more of a metaphorical active duty though as they’re not given a single assignment, but either way they’re soon kept busy enough trying to stay alive when their members start winding up dead. One is parked on a railroad track and crashed to pieces, another is nailed to ceiling, and the question becomes who’s behind the murders?
A local detective (Olivia Williams) is tasked with the investigation, but she’s stone-walled at every turn by obfuscation, beards, and a bureaucracy uninterested in the truth. To be fair, Ayer’s script (co-written by Skip Woods) is equally uninterested in the mystery portion of their story as evidenced by the incredibly sloppy writing, lazy reveal of the villain, and the most unbelievable bad guy since Scream 2. The mystery is being attributed to a “Ten Little Indians”-like scenario, but the suspect pool here is technically all of North America which is a far cry from an isolated island.
Ayer’s greatest strength as a writer/director has been his ear and eye for the working details of law enforcement. From the banter and jabs between cops to the technical procedures on the job, films like Training Day, Dark Blue, End of Watch, and even the under-appreciated Street Kings feel real even when the stories take Hollywood-ized dramatic turns. Sabotage‘s story grows more and more ridiculous and dumb, but those smaller character details rarely feel even remotely authentic. Banter involving pee breaks and sex feel repetitive and forced instead of fresh and natural, their on-the-job tactics resemble a corporate paintball retreat, and it all works against the team dynamic.
That’s not to imply that the team is all that strong in any other regard. They’re a collection of muscles, facial hair, and scripted bravado, and while the cast individually are actors worth watching here they’re simply playing dress-up. Josh Holloway, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, and Max Martini are all manly bluster (smooth jazz bluster in Howard’s case) and no real character. Mireille Enos is tasked with being the team’s sole female, and the normally reliable actress plays it sadly over the top from beginning to end. Her very manly-looking stunt double doesn’t help matters. The surprise here, hell, the shock here, is Sam Worthington. He seems to be the only cast member to have missed the meeting where everyone was told to play it like enthusiastic teens putting on a laughably-written play at summer camp and instead actually acts. And acts well! His chin beard however did in fact get the memo about being ridiculous.
It’s okay that the team is meant to be unlikable, it’s a refreshing change of pace actually, but they commit the cardinal sin of being uninteresting. Too many of them are indistinguishable, little more than interchangeable twins and triplets, and meaningless nicknames (like Pyro, Neck, Sugar, and Smoke) aside there’s nothing that sets them apart as characters. Williams’ detective is no better off as she’s saddled with a Southern drawl that’s as unnecessary as her brief, clearly chilly topless scene and left to wander aimlessly playing catch-up to the boys.
Ayer’s resume speaks for itself, so the temptation is to blame Woods for all that the movie gets wrong. He’s the wordsmith behind such action gems as Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and A Good Day to Die Hard, and it’s his childish, messy voice that saturates far too much of the film. There’s barely a believable moment to be found here, and his influence is also evident in the film’s gleeful adoration of human carnage and collateral damage. Ayer’s has never shied away from death, but bodies here are repeatedly turned to pulpy mash, both participants and innocents, and the camera lingers noticeably over the juicy results.
It would be one thing if that human cost were a serious point being made, if our reaction was meant to mirror the female homicide detective’s as she repeatedly reels away in shaky disgust from the grue on display like a delicate lady or kindergarten cop, but instead it seems we’re meant to be as inured and entertained by it as Breacher’s team. It’s a let down after the film’s opening that shows Breacher weathered and beat down emotionally as he watches a video of his wife being tortured to death. His thirst for vengeance is relegated to a flashback story casting him as solitary commando, something that in its entirety would constitute the plot of a handful of films in Schwarzenegger’s past and reflect his status as one of Hollywood’s last action heroes, but here it’s treated as little more than a tangent. It’s an acknowledgement of action films as cathartic entertainment even as it shuffles it to the status of background noise.
Faux-seriousness aside, Sabotage has some entertainment value. The action sequences have a visceral feel to them even if they are more Woods-ian than Ayer-like, and the cast, while mostly wasted, offer some fun as they flop around out of their element. If your sole requirement for a “good” Schwarzenegger film is bullets, blood, and cigar smoke then head out to the theater now as this is the movie for you. If you require even a little bit more than that though I suggest waiting three months for the home video.
The Upside: Opening sequence involving Breacher and a painful video; Sam Worthington (no, seriously); hard-hitting action; gory; Schwarzenegger’s “48% body fat” dig
The Downside: Script is Skip Woods-level bad; lack of personality among the team; female characters
On the Side: The film was previously titled Ten and Breacher before finally settling on Sabotage.