By Gary Dowell
A loud, visceral, and messy assault on the senses — and not in a fun way — actor/California governor/actor again Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sabotage delivers what it promises to its star’s career.
It’s an ugly piece of work whose innate scuzziness works both for and against it. It’s a movie at war with itself, a schizoid tale struggling with whether it should be a dumbass action movie or a taut thriller. Sadly, it functions as neither.
And that is frustrating, since Sabotage starts out strong, with an intriguing, meaty premise that it continually fails to exploit. Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the head of a DEA special ops team. They are a raucous, and not very likable bunch of scumbags with badges and jolly nicknames: Monster (Sam Worthington), Neck (Josh Holloway), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Pyro (Max Martini), Tripod (Kevin Vance), and Monster’s wife/token female, Lizzy (Mireille Enos) — like G. I. Joe by way of Sons of Anarchy, but without the charm.
As the story opens, the team stages an assault on a mansion owned by a violent drug cartel. Not so much as to bust the bad guys, but as to rob them of $10 million in ill-gotten cash. Someone beats them to the dirty money before they can collect it. Flash forward eight months, when the feds end their surveillance of the team whom they believe to be dirty. Just as the team starts to get their act together, someone starts picking them off one at a time in grisly, Se7en-esque fashion. Wharton and a pair of local cops (Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau) try to get to the bottom of things, but as the body count rises, the paranoia and red herrings ratchet up. What follows plays out like Ten Little Indians with gunplay and explosions — again, not in a fun way. “Someone’s getting paid, everyone else is getting dead” laments Sugar at one point, and Howard’s delivery of the line suggests he’s not sure which of the two he’d rather be.
As a cop drama, pseudo-slasher pic, and action movie hybrid, there’s an oddball edge to Sabotage that might have worked in its favor. That’s if director David Ayer (End of Watch) and co-writer Skip Woods (A Good Day to Die Hard) had not opted for a steady stream of befuddled plot twists and frustrating plot holes. The movie becomes an incoherent mess around the midway point and never recovers. On top of that is a steady stream of gratuitous graphic violence that grows tedious and tasteless, even for a Schwarzenegger flick.
The steady stream of unpleasant characters doesn’t help either. Wharton’s a self-serving bastard, and his team is so obnoxious and sleazy that one is tempted to root for the killer. Schwarzenegger is getting too old for this sort of thing. If anyone manages to maintain some dignity it’s Williams, though her syrupy Atlanta accent gets old quickly. The one actor who holds our attention (for all the wrong reasons) is Enos, who goes rocketing over the top as the thoroughly unhinged and drug-addled Lizzy in a performance that is a stark, curious contrast to her work in The Killing and World War Z.