Bleak Sabotage Schwarzenegger’s Descent Into Darkness
An elite DEA unit led by legendary tactical technician John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) has just made the worst decision of their collective lives. During their most recent bust they decide to take a little off the top, $10-million to be exact, stealing from one of the most ruthless and bloodthirsty Mexican cartels to ever set foot on U.S. soil. Problem is, the money is gone. Someone’s stolen it from them. On top of that, the DEA suspects Breacher and his team of wrongdoing, suspending them from duty while they investigate.
When that proves fruitless, the only thing to do is to return this resourceful and efficient team back to active status. But the moment that happens, the second they’re all back together, suddenly someone is out for blood, picking them off one by one in the most horrific of ways imaginable. Teaming with a hardened local Atlanta detective (Olivia Williams) Breacher must figure out who’s killing his unit before it’s too late, everything spiraling back to that missing $10-million none of them should have even pondered taking in the first place.
Sabotage is the movie Schwarzenegger should have made first after taking leave of the California governor’s mansion. Don’t get me wrong, I liked The Last Stand and Escape Plan for what they were, enjoyed much of what they had to offer, each a silly 1980’s-style B-movie throwback full of fun if one was in the right frame of mind. But this? This is something else entirely, the legendary action actor teaming up with hard-nosed cops and crime noir veteran David Ayer to produce one of the darkest, dirtiest and most violent (and sometimes most vile) motion pictures of his entire storied career. It’s both a change of pace as well as a celebration of much of the tropes and ideas that originally brought him fame, making it an energetic reintroduction to both man and myth modern audiences should feel happy to get excited about.
It’s also his first real foray into ensemble narrative dramatics (and no, neither of The Expendables counts on that front — sorry), Schwarzenegger allowing his fellow character actors to share the spotlight not hogging it all to himself. Mireille Enos, fresh from “The Killing” and World War Z, in particular makes the most of the situation, crafting a freewheeling energetic dynamo of an efficient killing machine a certain T-800 would have been more than proud of. She’s a firecracker in high heels, an idiosyncratic menace packing a submachine gun while at the same time freshening up her lipstick. I never knew what she was going to do next, bringing real pain, real suffering to her character’s interiors while at the same time reveling in all the madness and mayhem she’s got an incredible knack for unleashing.
The rest of the veterans who make up Breacher’s team are good, too, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Max Martini and a virtually unrecognizable Sam Worthington all doing solid work helping bring the unit to life. But it’s “True Blood” and Magic Mike heartthrob Joe Manganiello who comes off best, and while he doesn’t stray too far from what we’ve seen from him in the past (Alcide Herveaux fans will be particularly happy) that doesn’t make him any less a magnetic presence every time he shows up on the screen.
I do have issues. Lots of them, actually. Ayer’s scripts have never been as tightly wound or as efficient as I’d like, many having bits of overly complex lunacy making them feel too cute for their own good and far more contrived than necessary. This hindered both Training Day and Dark Blue to a certain extent, and while each was a solid film they were never entirely what they maybe could have been. Same with Harsh Times, if noticeably less so, while End of Watch had the strength of its concept behind it making any additional narrative idiosyncrasy entirely unnecessary.
Maybe it’s working with Skip Woods, the guy behind X-Men Origins: Wolverine and the truly abominable A Good Day to Die Hard, but there are moments in Sabotage where coherence and plausibility are jettisoned for no discernible reason whatsoever. On top of that, the plot mechanics get so tricky, so intent on spiraling in on themselves, making heads or tails of it all is oftentimes impossible, especially considering the motivation behind what’s going on and why isn’t exactly difficult to discern. There are times where things are just flat-out stupid, plain and simple, diluting the emotional impact of what is transpiring almost to their breaking point.
At the same time, Ayer the director is on something of a moderate roll. End of Watch showcased him in top form, bending mediums and styles with confidence and precision while also showing him to be able to keep a handle on character and story with no problems at all. Same in most ways that matter here, the filmmaker keeping things superbly focused even when linear storytelling gets thrown out the window. He stages some magnificent, gut-wrenching sequences of action, the human element always on the line (as well as the human cost, innocent bystanders beware) especially as things rocket to their blood-soaked conclusion.
I get the feeling this was potentially Schwarzenegger’s last real shot at something great as far as his post-political movie career is concerned. With sequels or reboots all in the pipeline (a new Terminator starts shooting soon), with nothing truly risky in the foreseeable future, at almost 67-years-old it’s hard to imagine he has many of these types of films left in him. If Sabotage doesn’t quite get there, it’s not for lack of trying on his part, and I like the decision to tackle something so profoundly dark, close to off-putting. The movie is a pulpy piece of revenge noir that’s in the end as bleak and as riddled with despair as these enterprises can get (think Man on Fire), that in and of itself almost enough to warrant a recommendation on my part right there alone.
Review reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)