Remember when audiences thought End of Watch represented gritty, raw action? Yeah, well let me introduce you to Sabotage, director David Ayer’s answer to action genre “torture porn” – gruelling, unflinching gore. In a time where Transformers movies level entire skyscrapers without acknowledging a single civilian casualty, Arnold Schwarzenegger leads a team of reckless special forces agents who are an innocent bystander’s worst nightmare. While we’re given a realistically raw and gritty portrayal of typical action fare, loaded with blood, guts, and unfortunate headshots, we’re left asking how much is too much? Sure, critics were up in arms over Man of Steel and the massive societal destruction that was cheekily overlooked, but how will they react to the other extreme – an extreme where some poor biker suffers an equally graphic fate to any main character. Sharing is caring, isn’t that what mother always said?
John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) commands a team of rag-tag undercover DEA agents who might enjoy their job a little too much, but that’s what scored them their elite classification. If you want the job done well, you go to Wharton’s team, full of nicknames like Monster (Sam Worthington), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), and Sugar (Terrence Howard). Even the best have weaker moments though, and Breacher’s team decides to steal a little dough while on a drug cartel raid – to the tune of $10 million dollars. When the team goes to locate the money, they find nothing but a cut rope, as their risk yields no reward. After being grilled by internal agents looking for the missing cash, the group is cleared for duty once again, but action finds them before they can make their next bust in the form of a dead teammate – a message. Can Breacher’s men band together and protect themselves, or will they be picked off one by one?
My initial reaction to Sabotage was confusion, being too sadistically violent to be a mainstream action watch and lacking Schwarzenegger’s signature cheese factor that typically balances such serious workings. This isn’t the kind of action movie that an adrenaline junkie’s disinterested significant other can stomach in its entirety, as the first gory murder scene will ultimately be more than you bargained for. The Last Stand ended up working for Arnold because Kim Jee-woon emphasizes fun over realism, staying in Arnie’s wheelhouse, but David Ayer has trouble asserting anything more than uber-violence and machismo stereotypes while struggling so hard to retain a dark, foreboding atmosphere that does absolutely no favors. So. Many. Shadow. Cuts.
Our characters are clouded by their own confusion, as some moments they’re genuinely electrifying and excitingly watchable, yet at other times their mercenary attitudes become cartoonish, overblown, action genre stand-ins. Manganiello’s portrayal of Grinder provides the perfect example, as at times it appears as if he’s channeling the likes Stallone, Willis, and old-school Schwarzenegger as some gruff biker who refuses to wear sleeves and spouts such wonderful one-liners as “Well why are we here? We could be drinking beers and throwing dollars at naked things.” Pure comedic genius, yes, but this caveman meathead struggles to fit in the world of Sabotage at times, much like Monster, Sugar, Lizzy, and the rest of the crew. Ayer and Skip Woods craft characters suited for 80s extravaganzas like Commando, yet thrust their wild bunch into an unexpectedly dire, fun-sucking void demanding more grounded personalities – not stripper loving steroid poster children.
Mireille Enos plays the lone female on Schwarzenegger’s team, starting off as an equal-rights ass kicker who’s shacked up with Monster, yet as her arc progresses, she channels less and less of Rosie the Riveter’s feminine independence. Where her character Lizzy initially shows that ladies can tactically go toe to toe with their hulking teammates, by the end, she becomes nothing but a manipulative plot device based on shoehorned relationship drama and silly internal squabbles. Honestly, in terms of story, I would have rather seen another male soldier on Breacher’s team, because her placement becomes witless once the shock of her military skills wears off.
Alas, and now we’re left with Arnold himself, an actor who proved he can still tango with the best, as an obligatory gym session works its way into Sabotage, but this just wasn’t a movie that required his specific talents. Arnie does his best when being spontaneously ridiculous, but Ayer’s forced one-liners really highlight just how out-of-place Schwarzenegger seems. These are the kind of deliveries Arnold can get away with in a movie like The Expendables, because expectations warrant awful dialogue between aged action icons, but Sabotage just isn’t the place for Schwarzenegger to enter a room while chewing on a newly-lit cigar, only to comment on how someone’s tattoo looks like a cock – although he does have a great moment when he comments on some desk-jockey’s 48% body fat, an insult I wish was punctuated by the term “girly man.”
Arnie may still be a beast of a man, but he’s a little past his prime – does anyone believe he can simply vanish into thin air? A cop turns around for literally five seconds, on a busy street where numerous other cops have just congregated, and when she turns back around to say another line to Arnold – poof. He’s vanished. Yes, a gigantic Austrian body-builder who sticks out like a sore thumb, currently in full tactical gear and carrying a high-powered weapon, vanishes from a crime scene without a single eye noticing. Arnold Schwarzenegger is not a ninja. He lifts things up and puts them down. Somewhere there’s an editor with fantastic B-roll footage of Arnold running off camera like a stealthy gorilla, footage that needs to be released to the world. Please, can someone make that a deleted scene on the Sabotage Blu-ray?!
Aside from the tonal problems and generic typecasting, David Ayer absolutely thrives while staging action sequences, and knows how to rev the engines of genre fans everywhere. Sure, Sabotage may be the goriest film I’ve seen since, well, since I watched Wolf Creek 2 only three nights ago – but the action is top notch. A normal audience member will be floored by how swift, seamless, and unabashedly relentless Ayer’s shootouts and fight sequences present themselves while whizzing by, showcasing pin-point execution over Wild West gun battles. Hell, at this point I’d love to see what Ayer could do while swimming in the bloody pools of horror, because visually he displays grimy crime scenes in an unfiltered, realistically repugnant light. Give Ayer a slasher movie and watch what happens – I dare you.
Does Sabotage accomplish what it sets out to do? I don’t really know, and that’s my main pain point with Ayer’s latest. I won’t go as far to describe this action thriller as mean spirited, but both Training Day and End of Watch were aided by punchy, intelligent scripting that held messages and warnings. Sabotage lacks that inherent realism, swapping out tough love and underground drama for some alcoholic strip-club enthusiasts who laugh in death’s face – except the assumed enjoyability never quite joins Ayer’s party.
Guns, drugs, booze, sex, violence, and Arnold Schwarzenegger – so why does Sabotage leave such an unappetizing aftertaste? Probably has something to do with the intestines, bone fragments, and flesh patches I pulled out of my meal.
Sabotage doesn't know whether it wants to be a cheesy 80s action throwback or a gritty, raw assault on reality, making it a bi-polar watch that creates tonal confusion instead of exciting entertainment.