Packaged as a non-stop action extravaganza, David Ayers’ (“End of Watch”) “Sabotage” is not the movie you expect. That’s not to say there aren’t big action pieces, the structure is bookended by the two most notable incidents, but the main narrative thrust is supposed to be a mystery, though we’re not talking about a particularly mysterious, or memorable, mystery. And not one overly concerned with finding answers, either. The end result is never really in question, but that doesn’t matter, that’s not the point. What “Sabotage” is, at the film’s heart, is an excuse to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger be a complete and total badass. Nasty, mean, and appallingly violent at times, this is a film not even necessarily for Arnold fans, but for fans of pulpy late 1970s/early 1980s revenge tales, the kind that star Charles Bronson. “Sabotage” is like a bloodier version of the entire Cannon Films catalog, which is way more appealing than another by the numbers action vehicle.
Ayers and his co-screenwriter Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “The A-Team”) go out of their way to make “Sabotage” harsh and grim. The onscreen action often relies on that quivering hand held, pseudo-verite style that has become Hollywood shorthand for “this is super gritty and real.” They’re also not going to shy away from showing blood, as you see in two specific scenes involving Olivia Williams’ homicide detective; killing off innocent bystanders in horrific ways; or just depicting harsh brutality at every turn. Be warned, there are multiple close-ups of people being shot in the head at point blank range, and I won’t even get started on the broken bones.
Showing the consequences in this manner grounds what is otherwise an absurd, over the top, blood and testosterone drenched soap opera. Imagine if an episode of “Jerry Springer” took a dark turn and devolved into two heavily armed groups of thugs hunting each other, and you have a pretty good idea of what “Sabotage” entails. The story revolves around an elite DEA team led by John “Breacher” Wharton (Schwarzenegger). These aren’t your typical cops, they have tattoos and cornrows and names like Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Monster (Sam Worthington), and Sugar (Terrence Howard). There are some serious father issues in play, especially between Breacher and the sole female in the group, Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who has to outdo the boys at every turn.
Breacher’s team may play by their own rules, like tearing apart a strip club and spilling drinks for their fallen brothers, and are barely distinguishable from the criminals they go after, but they’re also the best at what they do. When they try to steal millions of dollars in drug money, someone beats them to the score. Problem is no one believes them. Everyone thinks they have the cash, including their bosses and a particularly mean-spirited Mexican drug cartel. That’s no fun for anyone, and when someone starts picking off the team one by one, they’ve got figure out who is coming after them before, you know, it’s too late or whatever.
“Sabotage” stumbles around in the middle trying to make the updated Agatha Christie mystery compelling when the answer is obvious even if you haven’t been paying attention. Most situations are set up to be as bloody as possible, and to let Breacher’s team be as loud and bombastic as possible, until it borders on a caricature of movies like “Training Day.” We get it, Lizzy is crazy and on drugs, Joe Manganiello isn’t a particularly gifted actor, and Terrence Howard is totally wasted with only a handful of lines. The whole thing is totally silly, a fact that bounces back and forth between being endearing and infuriating.
Breacher is easily the best role Schwarzenegger has played since returning from his foray into politics (I still stand by “Demolition Man’s” assertion that he’ll be president one day), both in the terms of the character as written and his performance. He even gets a grim lone-wolf finale that allows him to do his best Clint Eastwood impersonation. While not enough to completely save a movie that is, at best, uneven, it’s one hell of a way to finish his story. “Sabotage” is a movie best enjoyed with a room full of like-minded friends, a half rack of cheap beer, and as much hooting and hollering as you can muster without the neighbors calling the cops.