By R. David
Viewed March 29, 2014
Arnold Schwarzenegger has had a tough time at the box office lately. Since returning to acting after his decade-long stint as governor of California, neither of his non-“Expendables” projects – “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” – managed to find much of an audience in theaters, despite being better than they certainly could have been. So it is a bit of a pleasant surprise to see Arnold branch out to a certain extent with his latest film, “Sabotage”. No, he’s not exactly tackling “Macbeth” here – this is still very much a film that mainly calls upon Schwarzenegger to shoot people in the face – but “Sabotage” has the look and feel of a gritty, low-budget, independent film with, ostensibly, an ensemble cast that Schwarzenegger is an equal part of, as opposed to the big-star, superhero focal point he almost always is. Nor is he playing a winking, comic relief, star cameo variation on his persona he is largely reduced to in the “Expendables” films. In other words, Schwarzenegger is required to serve the script for once, rather than the script simply being a vehicle that serves him. Think of his character here as Vic Mackey in “The Shield” and the rest of his crooked DEA crew as his Strike Team and you’ll have a good sense of the type of film and character study “Sabotage” aspires to be.
This is a step in the right direction for a guy hoping to make both a serious career renovation and a successful comeback. A lot of aging action heroes no doubt think they can all pull off a Clint Eastwood: Gracefully acknowledge their age without succumbing to it or apologizing for it. Eastwood’s ace up his sleeve however is that he is actually a powerful, sympathetic actor. As good as Schwarzenegger can be, true dramatic acting chops seem to elude him. In “Sabotage” he is cast as a DEA team captain whose wife and son were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by a vicious Mexican drug cartel. He spends most of his free time watching the video footage of their deaths that the cartel was kind enough to send him after the fact, glowering up a storm – sometimes crying, sometimes watching seemingly numbly out of some sort of morbid obligation. But for the viewer, neither emotion really rings true. Schwarzenegger’s brute physicality has always been his best emotive asset on screen. A sharp stare or twisted smirk radiating off his hulking frame and chiseled jawline was often all it took to tell audiences what was going on behind his steely eyes. Time away from film and his advancing age aside, this remains the case. Schwarzenegger is still relatively huge, and he still gets his most convincing emotional mileage out of subtle stares and grimaces. Anything more excessive still registers as awkward and unconvincing, even if he’s toned down his He-Man shtick (in an effort) to play more age appropriate and vulnerable heroes.
This wouldn’t really be a huge problem if it was the only thing about “Sabotage” that rang a bit false, but this movie is directed by David Ayer and written by Skip Woods. These two have the filmmaking chops and potential to make genre pictures that work. The problem is they rarely do. Projects from each man usually sound exciting on paper, but are often a mess in their execution. Ayer has some critical cache, but he is one of these directors who literally make the same movie every time out. See if you can find the common denominator in his filmography: He wrote “Training Day” and “Dark Blue”, directed “Harsh Times” and “Street Kings”, wrote and directed “End of Watch”, and now he’s given us “Sabotage”. If you said they’re all about cops, and – more specifically – cops who wrestle with moral dilemmas and personal demons, you would be correct. I’m not saying these are bad films, or that having a niche automatically means his work should be dismissed (Scorsese made a lot of gangster pictures; nobody’s complaining). But Ayer is working in well-traveled territory (gritty, urban, crooked cop dramas are hardly in short supply) and his obnoxious habit of getting increasingly more ugly with the violence and artsy-fartsy with the shaky-cam in order to distinguish his works and lend them this air of realistic credibility becomes more and more transparent with each film. A lot of critics praised “End of Watch”, but it did nothing for me other than cause me to wonder if Ayer was trying to break the record for uses of the term “motherfucker” in place of actual dialog, and concede once and for all that this trend of using shaky cinematography in order to create a sense of urgency and originality where there is neither is indeed the quickest way to pull me straight out of a movie.
Writer Skip Woods is another issue altogether. One of those true blue Hollywood hacks people always wonder how they continue to get work, Woods has managed to sully four (four!) already established (and mostly great) franchises with his pitiful scripts for “Hitman”, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”, “The A-Team” and “A Good Die To Die Hard”. (In the interest of always saying something nice, I did enjoy his directorial debut “Thursday”… 16 years ago.) Why someone like Ayer, who seems to be chomping at the bit for critical acclaim, would hook up with someone like Woods, who seems to be doing all he can to become a critical pariah, is a mystery to me. But here they both are, each up to their usual tricks in “Sabotage”; an ugly, nonsensical bit of neo-violence that, once again, looked and sounded promising in theory, but completely stiffs in execution. You can see why Schwarzenegger was drawn to the material however. Ayer is a director of some acclaim and the film keeps him in his action wheelhouse but is, at least ostensibly, not a cartoon. There are obvious aspirations from both star and filmmaker of making a serious and uncompromising thriller, so Arnold’s on the right track is his thinking.
But what the hell happened here?
Woods’ script is only part of the problem. Schwarzenegger’s team steals $10 million in a drug bust and they each begin getting picked off one by one (each in more gruesome ways then the last). It’s basically a retooling of Agatha Cristie’s “Ten Little Indians”. But not only is this plot device derivative, it also forces the movie to stall out, giving time to a lot of conversations that only exist for exposition’s sake, like your average slasher flick. And like a slasher flick, Ayer really seems to be hell-bent on ratcheting up the gory bloodshed (because that’s more daring, gritty and realistic, he probably figures) . I’m not one to whine about violence in my action movies. Generally speaking, the more the better. And I’m all for unflinching, realistic violence in service of a pointed, realistic film. But, first of all, nothing about “Sabotage” is very plausible, never mind realistic. And secondly, Ayer revels in a fetishistic, almost autopsyesque style of violence here that is hardly any fun. Again, the movie needn’t be a cartoon – I’m perfectly on board with someone making a serious movie about the ugly brutality of Mexican drug cartels – but “Sabotage” is a rabble-rousing, dick-swinging whodunit, augmented with jarring tonal shits to realistic-looking gaping head wounds and viscera-strewn crime scenes. I’m sure Ayer wants the violence to make an impact, but it doesn’t serve to up the stakes so much as pull the audience out of the film and take note of how humorlessly graphic it all is.
Typical of Woods, everyone in the cast has a bad-ass, personality-descriptive moniker like Breach, Sugar, Smoke, Monster, and Tripod. No one in “Sabotage” is a character, rather everyone is a type. Much of the cast even looks the same – all cloaked in massive amounts of tattoos, muscle tees or tank tops, and tactical gear; their faces hidden behind sunglasses and varying degrees of facial hair – literally rendering many of them indistinguishable from one another. It’s tough to tell a “Grinder” from a “Neck”. Good actors are either wasted and underused (Josh Holloway, Joe Maganiello, and Harold Perrineau Jr.) or succumb to the dopier aspects of the script and get dragged down with it (Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, and Sam Worthington). It also doesn’t help matters that Woods has apparently never met a bodily function joke he thinks too lowbrow or out of place.
And typical of Ayer, everyone shouts the F-word every chance they get in place of any actual dialogue. The first 20 minutes of this movie is best watched with your finger on the mute button. You’ll miss almost nothing as far as plot development is concerned but save yourself a lot of aggravation by avoiding the constant loud, foul-mouthed bickering that really serves no purpose (these guys are hardcore – point taken). Once the film finally gets into its main story – Schwarzenegger’s team comes under investigation by the FBI for the missing 10 mil, internal suspicions begin to tear the team apart, Schwarzenegger’s character partners with a detective played by Olivia Williams to figure out who’s targeting his crew, and the cartel who killed Schwarzenegger’s family appear – it settles down a bit and “Sabotage” shows a glimmer of the compelling potboiler it might have been if it were possible to take it as seriously as Ayer so desperately wants us to.
But, to the bitter end, “Sabotage” is confounded by its identity crisis of realistic drama and over-the-top shoot ‘em up. The action sequences have that gritty sheen Ayer likes so much, but their outcomes, as well as the rest of Woods’ script, are beholden to the strictest of farfetched action movie tropes and clichés, dragging this interesting cast down, which is a shame; especially in Schwarzenegger’s case. He’s got the right idea in terms of navigating the sort of action film he is best suited for these days. Here’s hoping he gets a chance to find a film more worthy of his efforts, and soon.
2 Stars (Out of 4)