Arnold Schwarzenegger teams-up with the writer of Training Day in this respectable box office flop.
David Ayer has established himself as a purveyor of gritty crime films over the years, with the likes of End of Watch, Street Kings and Harsh Times under his belt. Co-written by Skip Woods, 2014’s Sabotage is not exactly fresh territory for the filmmaker, who dreams up a twisty action-thriller that’s dark, repugnant, and viciously violent. The movie also features the acting talents of Arnold Schwarzenegger, making a wise decision to star in what’s essentially an auteur effort. Sabotage is not a typical Schwarzenegger vehicle, but rather a David Ayer film through-and-through, with the Austrian Oak playing a much darker role than usual. Although the end result is uneven and was clearly the victim of studio interference, it’s definitely a fun enough watch, even if it’s not the genuine keeper it could’ve been.
In Georgia, a team of fierce DEA agents led by the towering Breacher (Schwarzenegger) storm the compound of a feared drug lord, using the raid to steal $10 million from the cartel to split amongst them for their own means. However, the stash of money mysteriously disappears, and the Feds begin to suspect Breacher’s team. After being investigated and scrutinised for six months, though, the guys are cleared to return to duty, only to find that their skills are rusty and they’ve grown distrustful of each other. The situation deteriorates further when members of the task force begin getting murdered in vicious ways, prompting Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to look into the killings.
Arnie has fans young and old, but Sabotage is definitely geared towards the adult demographic. Ayer’s movie wears its R-rating on its sleeve, with scores of blood and viscera, not to mention the graphic image of a dead body nailed to the ceiling. It’s commendable for Ayer to retain his tendency towards authenticity, though it might not appeal to those wanting something more in line with Commando. What’s interesting is that Breacher and his team are actually villainous and highly unpleasant, with fuzzy morals making them true antiheroes. Indeed, we watch these guys stealing from a cartel in the first ten minutes and endeavouring to cover it up, and events only grow more extreme from there. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured that the story heads off in unexpected directions, leading to a conclusion that one would never expect to see in an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.
One of the movie’s strengths is its dialogue, which is full of snarky exchanges and macho bantering, reflecting the type of people that Breacher’s team are. It’s often quite hilarious, and the joking around helps to give the picture a sense of humanity. Unfortunately, though, the task force generally has little dimension – there are a handful of great scenes of team bonding, but there should have been more, and at times it’s hard to figure out who’s been killed. Storytelling is a bit all over the shop as well, with some choppy editing and a strange narrative flow suggesting that the movie was indeed extensively trimmed by the studio in favour of a more action-oriented finished product. Flat characters are to be expected in B-movies, but Sabotage aspires to be more than a dumb actioner, with Ayer shooting for something closer to Sylvester Stallone’s Cop Land. Thus, it insists on a realistic tone but it needed more dimensionality to make it work.
In terms of bruising action, Ayer definitely delivers, orchestrating scene upon scene of insanely violent shootouts and other chaos. Ayer is a filmmaker who prefers practical effects over CGI, hence you feel the impact of every bullet, and the destruction feels real. These are some of the best action set-pieces of Arnie’s career, and that’s saying something. It’s also notable that Ayer predominantly relied on blood squibs as opposed to digital gore, a choice that gives the movie a beautifully lived-in aesthetic. The performances are a little bit flat across the board, but the ensemble are generally good enough. Schwarzenegger is well-suited to the role of Breacher, looking convincing as he uses big guns and chomps on cigars. The hulking star is visibly getting older, but he looks credible in combat here, and he can still deliver one-liners and use firearms with confidence. Also strong here is Sam Worthington as Monster, one of the members of Breacher’s squad. It’s a refreshing change of pace for the actor, and he’s actually a believable badass. Joe Manganiello, meanwhile, is likewise convincing as Grinder, while the likes of Terence Howard and Josh Holloway give further flavour to the Breacher’s task force. But it’s Mireille Enos who steals the show as the insane, coked-up Lizzy, spouting endless profanity and killing with little compunction.
In the end, it’s hard to warm up to Sabotage or really love it, but it’s easy to enjoy the various set-pieces staged with a sure hand, and it’s fascinating to see Arnie playing a dark antihero. Still, one can’t help but wonder what the rumoured original three-hour cut is like, and wonder if the various flaws in storytelling and character development could be rectified in a future home video release.