The new resurgence of nostalgic action heroes of old making a return to the silver screen has met with mixed results, both in terms of box office as well as audience reception. With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sabotage marks his second film as a star for his recent comeback (The Expendables 1 & 2 and Escape Plan doesn’t count since Expendables was basically an extended cameo and Escape Plan is a co-lead with Sylvester Stallone). So, far I have been satisfied with his recent crop. The Last Stand was nothing great, but it was fun for what it was. I admit that I have a weak spot for these types of films. I’ve been watching the films of guys like Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme, etc. since I was a kid, so even when their recent films aren’t quite up to par to their older work, I still get a kick out of them. Sabotage is brought to us by the writer of Training Day and writer/director of End of Watch, David Ayer, who directs and co-wrote the script for this film. The co-writer for the film is Skip Woods, known of his work on X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard. Oh…oh no. Oh God, no!
Sabotage follows John “Breacher” Warthon (Arnold Schwarzenegger), the leader of a (really, really crooked) squad of DEA agents. The team includes James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington), his crackhead wife Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway), Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini), Bryce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance) and “Smoke” Jennings (Mark Schlegel). After a raid, the team steals ten million dollars from the cartel, which later goes missing. Because of that, they end up suspended and investigated for theft by their superiors, but it’s ultimately dropped after several months. However, members of the team begin getting killed off one by one, and Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) and her partner Darius Jackson (Harold Perrineau), are put in charge of investigating the murders.
Though it doesn’t necessarily show with the synopsis, the plot does get a bit convoluted by the end of the second act. Motivations of certain characters are kind of odd, and also some of the script conveniences make the story seem incredibly preposterous. I blame Skip Woods for that, and I don’t think I’m just jumping to conclusions. Many aspects of the writing from a surface and structural standpoint just stink of Skip Woods. However, David Ayer does seem to add some much needed personality to the script, and his directing effort is well done. He adds a level of realism, intensity and brutality to the film and honestly, I kind of had a blast with the final product.
The film isn’t quite 80’s, or even 90’s in terms of the type of action film this is. It is a rather bizarre and fascinating blend of 80’s machismo, 90’s over-the-top action and a modern dark and gritty atmosphere, and for me, it worked. The machismo in this film is so overblown, that once the film was over, I felt like I grew another pair of testicles. Even the female characters are macho as hell. Another thing that relates to that is the dialogue. For those who have seen South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, remember when the kids get out the theater after seeing an R-rated film, and they begin cursing like crazy, without substance, context or purpose? Imagine if they wrote an action film within that mindset; that’s what the dialogue in this film is like. The excessive swearing from everyone became so over the top that it’s almost funny, and I wasn’t sure if I was laughing with the movie, or at the movie. I will say, it did add some fun and flavor to the characters in the film, who are by their nature deeply flawed people (like most David Ayer protagonists), and bordering on the unlikable.
The acting in the film, I thought was surprisingly good. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in probably his darkest role to date, gives some nuance and subtlety to his performance, but he also delivers as usual when it comes to his big action moments. Unexpectedly, Sam Worthington was really good. At first, I barely recognized him, but once I realized it was him, I was surprised by how well he pulled of his role. For me, the two better characters were the female characters. Mireille Enos goes completely ovaries-to-the-wall and made for a very convincing cracked-out psycho. Olivia Williams also does great as the no-nonsense investigator. She provides for some of the funnier moments in the film with her back and forth with the other characters, and when push came to shove, she convincingly came of as a badass. In fact, both the female characters hold their own incredibly well during the action sequences, even with the tattooed, testosterone-filled, muscle-clad men by their side.
One thing that I should get to is the violence in the film. The film is extremely gory. I don’t just mean usual action movie gore; I’m talking 80’s slasher gore. It even gives the 2008 Rambo film a run for its money. I’ve seen some people accuse the film of going overboard, even glorifying the violence. I have to disagree with that. I never felt like the film was exploiting anyone’s suffering, the camera didn’t linger too much on the gore; when something violent happened, it was taken seriously. The action sequences though exaggerated, made each bullet have an impact and each shot felt like it mattered. Even when a couple civilians do get killed during a car chase sequence in the third act, it was addressed (granted with like a few lines, but still), and it works in context because you had the bad guys who were trying to get away no matter what and they have no regard for what life they may take on the way. So, that’s my take on the violence in the film. I can see why some people are a bit upset at the portrayal, but to me, it did not glorify. So, that side, the action sequences are very well done. The editing and cinematography made the sequences as intense and brutal as needed and the actors all did a good job handling them.
Look, I’m not gonna pretend that Sabotage is going to be a new action classic or anything like that. For me, it was a flawed, stupid, but fun action movie. Sabotage is a uniquely enjoyable flick that is about as crazy as some of its characters. I make no bones about my enjoyment for everything Arnie, so for anyone else who isn’t a diehard Arnold fan, Sabotage might make for a good rental if you can handle the constant blood splatter , but not necessarily a must see in the theater. And hey, I guess I finally found a film involving Skip Woods that I actually like.
Side Note: Sabotage is actually one of two films that David Ayer is involved with this year. His next writing/directing effort will be a change from his usual inner-city cops/criminals affair to a World War II film called Fury, which is currently set for a November 14, 2014 release date. With a cast including Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal, Michael Peña, Jason Isaacs and Scott Eastwood, I’m curious to see how David Ayer handles a story of a different style than his typical lower budget crime dramas.