“Sabotage” is the most exciting, satisfying, suspenseful and intelligent Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick I’ve seen in recent. The best way to describe it is: an ultraviolent actioner crossed with a revenge flick, crossed with an Agatha Christie “And Then There were Fewer” style mystery. Did I really just write Agatha Christie and Arnold Schwarzenegger in the same paragraph?
The movie is directed and co written (with Skip Woods) by David Ayer who wrote the excellent crime drama “Training Day” and was the writer/director behind the Jake Gyllenhaal/Michael Pena cop drama “End of Watch” in 2012. Even though “End of Watch” didn’t completely work for me, Ayer still managed to breathe some refreshing and thrilling life into a tired subgenre and he does something similar with “Sabotage.” Though, with “End of Watch” Ayer was going for realism (the movie used an interesting but ultimately frustrating combination of Found Footage and Cinema Verite) whereas “Sabotage” is more in the vein of a cartoon-y, B-movie style action ensemble.
The picture revolves around members of a special DEA task force, although they don’t really seem like DEA agents, or at least what we think of when we think of DEA. They’re a big, beefy, tatted up, rambunctious group complete with cool action movie tough guy nicknames. There’s James “Monster” Murray, (Sam Worthington, who struggles to maintain his American accent near then end) Joe “Grinder” Phillips, (Joe Manganiello) and Eddie “Neck” Jordan (“Lost” star Josh Holloway). In addition there’s Julius “Sugar” Edmonds, (Terrence Winter) Tom “Pyhro” Roberts, (Max Martini) Bryce “Tripod” McKneely (Kevin Vance) and the solo female Lizzy Murray, (Mireille Enos, who gives a wild hot mess of a performance. If she was a wet blanket wife to Brad Pitt in last year’s “World War Z” she’s definitely not here) who might as well be considered “one of the guys.” And of course, how could I forget old Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger himself (“that’s not his movie nickname, but I like it better than “Breacher”) as Jack Wharton, the leader who tries to keep these unruly men in order.
Seriously these guys are ultra loud, obnoxious and rowdy; when they’re having a celebration at someone’s house and a detective named Caroline (Olivia Williams) comes over to conduct business they mistake her for a stripper. They’re more like mercenaries than DEA agents, exaggerated comic-book mercenaries at that. And yet, there’s something sort of genuine about them; as vulgar and bone headed as they can be at times, they’re still a tight-knit unit. They’re still a family. When they trade insults with one another or get into fights it’s done so out of adoration, much in the same way Gyllenhaal and Pena—as two street cops—in “End of Watch” would grill each other out of brotherly love. In their reckless, macho way the team loves one another and there’s also something endearing about Schwarzenegger playing the stern parental figure of the group.
The comedic banter between the team doesn’t always work as well as Ayer probably would have liked. I realize he’s going for a cartoonish vibe but sometimes the repartee feels forced and occasionally the performances are just a little too over-the-top and hammy. Again I realize this is Ayer’s intent but there is a point where things can be too silly, especially when Ayer is also trying to develop and maintain a sense of dread.
When drug money--that the team planned on taking for themselves--goes missing they start dropping one by one. Who could it be? The drug cartel looking for retaliation? Or is it one of the team members themselves. The team may seem close knit but they’re also loose cannons, (excuse the cliché cop movie terminology) in fact they’re more than loose cannons, so it’s not totally impossible one of them could be killing the others off in search of a payday. This is where the “And Then There Were Fewer” style mystery comes in. Now the mystery in “Sabotage” isn’t nearly as elaborate or intelligent as it would be in a more traditional mystery story, but it still contains legitimate tension and suspense. In this age of infinite franchises, sequels and remakes/reboots I can’t remember the last time I’ve experienced actual surprise in commercial action cinema.
It’s also sort of rare these days to see an action movie as violent and gory as “Sabotage.” With the seemingly endless barrage of watered down, PG-13 superhero movies (the studios need to attract a bigger audience so they can make more movies) it’s a relief to see bold, R rated cringe worthy violence. The team members get killed off in elaborate and grotesque ways; one guy gets nailed to the wall of his house. At the same time though, Ayer doesn’t overdo it. He makes sure to put story and character over action and violence, so that when violence does come there’s weight behind it. In other words, it’s deserved.
I’m not going to tell you that “Sabotage” is great art and I highly doubt it will end up on any kind of year end list, but it’s still one of the most refreshing, R rated action movies I’ve seen of late. Besides the reasons I’ve already given, the movie contains not one but two strong female characters that match the males at every turn. And perhaps best of all, the movie isn’t just a gigantic wink to famous action movies of the past like “The Expendables” or “The Last Stand” was. “Sabotage” tells its own story, creates its own characters and contains some intelligence.
And it doesn’t have a post-credit scene teasing a future movie. I know, weird right?