It’s been fun to see Arnold Schwarzenegger make a comeback ever since he completed his second term as the "Governator" of California in 2011, but sometimes even his iconic, hilariously campy star power can’t save a film from being an ugly piece of trash.
His latest starring vehicle, "Sabotage," directed by David Eyer of "End of Watch" and "Street Kings" fame, aims to be a gritty, over-the-top and darkly funny piece of action-packed escapism, but its one-note, ultra-violent set pieces become more monotonously sour over the course of its nearly two-hour runtime.
Schwarzenegger stars as John Wharton, the leader of a DEA squad full of the most scruffy, obnoxiously macho undercover agents in recent cinematic history. Known by the nickname ’Breacher,’ Wharton’s team consists of characters who go by ’Monster’ (Sam Worthington, with one of the most unattractive goatees in movie history), his wife Lizzy (Mirelle Enos), ’Sugar’ (Terrence Howard), ’Grinder’ (Joe Maganiello), ’Neck’ (Josh Holloway), ’Tripod’ (Kevin Vance) and ’Smoke’ (Mark Schlegel). They drink more Pabst Blue Ribbons than an entire frat house, treat every woman as a sex object, and make more scatological jokes than a room full of middle-schoolers.
They’re all so thinly drawn and juvenilized by Ayer and co-screenwriter Skip Woods ("A Good Day to Die Hard"), and yet we’re supposed to give a shit when they all start getting knocked off one by one after pulling a robbery during a cartel drug bust that goes horribly wrong. Basically, it’s a slasher film that replaces the dumb, stereotypically horny teenagers with even dumber and more stereotypically horny beefcakes that are more trigger-happy than Elmer Fudd is.
It could also be considered as an action-movie riff on Agatha Christie’s popular novel, "And Then There Were None," but the film does nothing new with the book’s classic who-dun-it setup and provides no form of depth in regard to its plot, characters or commentaries on violence in the drug war. From what I could gather, Ayer seems to be trying to make some sort of statement on how the characters’ have spent so much time undercover that they’ve become as morally corrupt as the drug cartels that they’re hunting. Yet, he develops no sense of emotional catharsis or any kind of social commentary when it comes to following through with this approach.
This isn’t to say that all action films have to be deep or provocative. I greatly enjoy a mindless piece of B-movie schlock if it’s executed well, and have greatly enjoyed more recent violent fare such as Garreth Evans’ film "The Raid 2," which is receiving a limited theatrical release on the same day that "Sabotage" opens nationwide. However, where Evans is able to frame his sequences of combat with an innovative sense of spectacle and cinematic grandeur that immerses the viewer amidst the chaos, Ayer orchestrates his shoot-outs in a grim, headache-inducing fashion.
The shaky-cam style of shooting can be done to great effect in films such as "Zero Dark Thirty" and "The Bourne Supremacy," but "Sabotage" is so full of quick cuts and fake zooms that it becomes difficult for the viewer to decipher exactly what they’re looking at. Even when it’s abundantly clear as to what’s being depicted on screen, the film has a gross, murky look to it that’s as unappealing as the characters it forces us to spend time with. It aims for that same kind of "edgy" vibe that Kathryn Bigelow and Paul Greengrass are able to successfully pull off, but there’s a relentlessly nasty streak to this film that makes its attempt at style seem all the more workmanlike and hollow.
A majority of the scenes in which people aren’t shooting each other in the face consist of these characters going to strip clubs, getting wasted and cackling like a bunch of hyenas at their own dick jokes. Several characters mention that Breach’s DEA team is like a "family," but this is something that is consistently being told to the viewer as opposed to being shown. The mystery of the plot ultimately means nothing to them since nobody is worth rooting for. Not only are their personalities are indistinctive, but also the film is much more prioritized with finding certain ways to kill them off as opposed to making them the least bit compelling or indistinguishable.
Its depiction of women, in particular, is especially repugnant. A majority of the female characters are either strippers or damsels in distress, and even the two "strong" female protagonists fall victim to just as many testosterone-fuelled clichés as the men in the film.
Olivia Williams, a genuinely underrated actress who’s been given strong performances in films such as "Rushmore" and "The Sixth Sense," plays a homicide detective who seems capable of solving the case and taking whomever the savage killer may be. However, she’s consistently overshadowed/protected by Schwarzenegger’s Breach in nearly every action sequence and is never one step ahead as she thinks she is.
In addition, the one female member of the DEA squad, Lizzy, played by the extremely talented Mirelle Enos ("The Killing") happens to be as gleefully sexist towards her own gender as her male counterparts. During one sequence that’s played for laughs, her husband ’Monster’ states, "I guess you blew the right scumbag, honey," to which she responds, "I guess I did!" This is also preceded by one line of dialogue in the previous scene in which she states "Aw, shit! I think I broke a nail," and another one that in which she jokes about her sex appeal to the other male members of the team.
Even taken on face value as a mindless popcorn flick, "Sabotage" is a brutal, mean-spirited bloodbath that shoves the audience into a non-stop array of carnage and gore. There are only so many times that a filmmaker can show people’s heads getting blown off before it becomes numbingly vile, and Ayer’s grisly, mercilessly graphic approach is exhausting to watch from the get-go. Not to mention that the plot is so needlessly convoluted that by the time everyone’s brains start to splatter against the wall, it’s hard to even keep track as to what the hell is going on in regard to the story, its characters and its themes.
Bound to stimulate migraines for viewers across the country, "Sabotage" is a loud, horrid, and utterly bleak disaster. Ahnold, and his fans, deserve so much better than this garbage.