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Here’s a challenge: Sit down at the end of Sabotage and try to make a lick of sense out of the confused plot of this thrill-deprived action thriller. No, wait, that would be an idiotic waste of time. While its multiple-source video angle was a little forced, writer-director David Ayer‘s End of Watch was otherwise everything a gripping cop drama should be – lean and sinewy, jittery and emotionally charged; it wasn’t subtle but it had actual characters, terrific actors and authentic grit. However, his repellent new movie, co-written with Skip Woods, is its predecessor’s posturing, pornographically violent opposite.
A ludicrous testosterone-fueled tale of a rogue undercover DEA task force, Sabotage aims to shape a post-political Arnold Schwarzenegger into an iconic take-no-prisoners federal agent hell-bent on vengeance as he chomps on a cigar the size of a baby’s forearm.
We first encounter his character, John “Breacher” Wharton, weeping over footage of a woman being brutally tortured while an image flashed over the opening titles signals, literally, that there’s blood on his hands. As the film progresses, we learn the backstory behind that tape and the root of Breacher’s brooding intensity. But Schwarzenegger doesn’t really do “inner life.” He’s all surface. And when he’s not encouraged to slip in a wink to remind us that he’s in on the joke, things can get pretty wooden. Besides, Breacher’s history as a wronged family man and its role in the plot are completely sidelined until the final crescendo of violence.
If the miscalculation of putting Ahh-nold in a grim Clint Eastwood/Charles Bronson/John Wayne rough-justice role were the only problem, Sabotage might not be such a numbing bore. It has elements that could even be entertaining had they been in a less flimsy story context.
VIDEO: Arnold Schwarzenegger Recalls His Iconic Movie Lines With Jimmy Fallon
Among them is Joe Manganiello as Joe “Grinder” Phillips, who has white-rapper cornrows and tattooed arms so huge that no clothing can cover them. Tossing off lines like “What the hell are we doin’ here? We could be drinkin’ beers and throwin’ dollars at somethin’ naked,” or “Ammo’s cheap, my life ain’t,” he hints at what this movie could have been with a sense of humor. Likewise Mireille Enos. As the only woman in the elite squad, Lizzy sadly doesn’t get a cool nickname like everyone else. But at least Enos gets to shrug off the drab knitwear and dowdy ponytail of The Killing, trading it for serious hair volume, hooker-strength eyeliner, a badass attitude and a substance-abuse habit. “Mmmm, liquid meth!” she coos at one point, licking her finger like a crack-whore Betty Crocker. But that’s where the fun ends.
The film fails spectacularly in the central idea that Breacher and his fearless fighting machines are a dysfunctional family of renegades in which loyalties run deep and betrayals even deeper. Really, they are just a bunch of interchangeable muscle-heads who share a taste for fart humor, strip clubs and boozing in an ensemble that has no cohesion.
The trouble starts when the assault team raids a drug cartel party (an excellent excuse for gratuitous girl-on-girl action in the first 10 minutes) in an operation that turns out to be a cover for their theft of a cool $10 million. When the cash goes missing, an internal affairs investigation gets them suspended just long enough for their skills to turn rusty. But when the team is reassembled, its members start turning up dead, in gruesome statement hits that seem to carry a barbaric cartel signature.
The film’s original title, Ten, was a reference to Agatha Christie‘s process-of-elimination murder mystery, And Then There Were None, better known as Ten Little Indians. But the filmmakers quickly tire of that track. The nondescript new title suggests a movie that lost its way at some point between script and editing room; the trailer actually makes far more narrative sense than the release cut.
Detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) investigates the killings. She gets personally involved in a way that comes out of nowhere and disappears just as quickly, adding nothing to the convoluted plotting. Williams’ main purpose in the movie seems to be trying out an American accent so shaky it makes Sam Worthington‘s sound passable. He plays James “Monster” Murray, Lizzy’s husband and fellow thug, distinguishable by his shaved head and braided goatee, if not much else.
Also on the team are Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway), Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini) and Bryce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance). It’s a bad sign when you spend more time wondering about the origins of those names than focusing on what they’re up to. As their number dwindles with each shower of bullets or elaborate disembowelment, suspicion shifts to within the group. But any thread of logic or intrigue that set this plot in motion has long since unraveled.
Late in the grimy-looking movie, Caroline mentions Georgia, which is the first clue as to where it’s all going down. Whether the action is in Atlanta or Juarez, there’s zero sense of place to distract from the feebleness of the story. Nor can David Sardy‘s electronic score provide momentum. Considering that Ayer’s fascination with morally complicated law enforcers dates back to his screenplay for Training Day, the generic characters here, and the pedestrian blurring of the good guy-bad guy line are kind of sad. And the messy violence, rather than having something to say about the war on drugs and its dehumanizing effect on those who fight it, is merely deadening.
What’s most remarkable about this big, dumb exploitation movie is how carefully anything approaching psychological texture appears to have been peeled away. As for the reinvention of Schwarzenegger’s screen persona that Ayer had promised, it’s always a kick to watch the mountain of gristle narrow his gaze as he locks and loads. But even the metal-made Terminator had more heart.
Production companies: QED International, in association with Crave Films
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Josh Holloway, Mireille Enos, Kevin Vance, Max Schlegel
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriters: Skip Woods, David Ayer
Producers: Bill Block, David Ayer, Ethan Smith, Paul Hanson, Palak Patel
Executive producers: Joe Roth, Anton Lessine, Sasha Shapiro, Albert S. Ruddy, Skip Woods, Geoffrey Yim
Director of photography: Bruce McCleery
Production designer: Devorah Herbert
Music: David Sardy
Costume designer: Mary Claire Hannan
Editor: Dody Dorn
Rated R, 110 minutes.
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