– Summary –
Director : David Ayer
Year Of Release : 2014
Principal Cast : Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Gary Grubbs.
Approx Running Time : 109 Minutes
Synopsis: After they steal $10 million during a drug raid, a group of DEA Agents find themselves the target of a mysterious assassin.
What we think : Violent, gritty crime thriller delivers on all fronts – except decent characters or a justification for its lapses in logic (a character involved in a firefight inexplicably turns and heads back into the bullets when they could simply have gotten away) – Sabotage is dynamite, bloody action that offers up a one-two punch of crime and retribution. The motivations and characters don’t quite feel legitimately developed, but the overall aesthetic is one of a solid, muscular, adult thriller that eschews frivolity in favor of a crisp, thunderous, razor-sharp perfunctory edge.
While this review might be about Sabotage, if you haven’t seen director David Ayer’s blistering cop-drama End Of Watch, drop what you’re doing and go check it out. Go on, do it! Right. Welcome back. Sabotage has a fairly high benchmark to live up to. Once again, law enforcement comes in to focus in Ayer’s and co-scripter Skip Woods’ story of betrayal, corruption and carnage, as the Austrian Oak attempts to get his career back onto the “serious drama” track after relatively cheesy fare in the Expendables franchise and The Last Stand. The combustible mix of Ayer’s searing character development, and Arnie’s chisel-jawed screen-iconic-ness, had me salivating at the mere thought of what might transpire in Sabotage, a film filled with weaponry and a scenery-chewing cast (Sam Worthington being no stranger to big-budget films!). Would it – nay, could it – deliver on expectations? Or would it mire itself in the vast shadow of Arnie’s illustrious career and become encumbered with scaffolding up the once legendary screen legend?
Synopsis courtesy Wikiepedia: John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of an elite team of DEA agents from the Special Ops Division, formed by James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington) and his wife Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), Joe “Grinder” Philips (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). During a raid on a cartel warehouse, in which Smoke is killed, the team steals $10 million from the cartel’s money, hides it in sewer pipes to collect later and split among themselves, and blows up the rest to cover their tracks. However, the money disappears, and their superior Floyd Demel (Martin Donovan) finds out about it and suspends them for several months, during which they are investigated for the theft. With no concrete evidence of their participation, Demel reinstates them. Later, Breacher finds out that Lizzy has become addicted to drugs and that her marriage with Monster is failing. Pyro is killed when his trailer is rammed by a train, after someone drives it to the tracks while he’s unconscious. Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) and her partner Darius Jackson (Harold Perrineau) are assigned to the case and interrogate Pyro’s teammates. Brentwood notes Neck is avoiding interrogation, and Breacher accompanies her to his house, where they find him nailed to the ceiling and disemboweled. Brentwood recognizes the execution as the M.O. of the cartels, leading Breacher to assume the cartel is hunting them down over the stolen money. From there, the race is on to determine who is going to be next, and stop the carnage.
Sabotage skirts a fine line between being a gritty, urban thriller with twists, turns and blood-soaked violence, and an uneven parody of the very genre it portrays; casting Arnold Schwarzenegger as your leading man often runs the risk of stepping sideways into that kitschy, self-referential style of film the big guy made famous in The Last Action Hero, and more recently in The Last Stand. It’s been a while – at least since the abominable End Of Days – since Arnie stepped up into an outright dramatic film, and prior to that its was probably…. well, looking at Arnie’s filmography I’m struggling to find a film that doesn’t involve some kind of sly humor or wit. Possibly Total Recall, or the original Terminator. I’m happy to report that Sabotage sees Arnie arrive at the “serious thespian” club in fine style – albeit perhaps several decades too late – thanks to David Ayer’s solid direction and ripping eye for action. Sabotage doesn’t skimp on violence, being easily on par with the hardest R-rated films getting about, yet it’s not gratuitous contextually. This film is set in a brutal underworld of drug cartels and very violent people, and the consequences of putting a single foot wrong include leaving this mortal world punctured by bullets. Ayer doesn’t flinch depicting death – remember seeing End Of Watch? Just like that.
Leaving aside Sabotage’s often unflinching depiction of death, the film is really rather bland in terms of story – oh, there’s an ensemble of likeable (and unlikeable) characters, and they’re all typically cliched “gung ho” types all intent on looking as bad-ass as possible and being as hard-ass as possible, but for all the posturing and chest beating the film engages in, the story lacks any sense of being genuine. It’s like a rough-cut GI Joe styled actioner, bruising and battering yet not doing much for the ol’ grey matter. The plot, with a bunch of DEA agents all being targeted by one of their own, doesn’t feel very original (although from where its feels imitation I’m not entirely sure) and the characters aside from Arnie aren’t much more than simplistic, elementary-level action cliches. Ayer wisely doesn’t dwell too much on the ensemble, keeping the majority of his film’s “plot” working through Arnie and second-lead Olivia Williams, who is surprisingly good as the police investigator trying to tie up the case of the DEA agent’s murders. It was actually Williams that I invested in emotionally throughout, even if I don’t think that was Ayer’s point. Arnie’s character, the cigar chomping leader of the DEA group, shows plenty of emotion, and Ayer’s also does well not letting us know Breacher’s true motivations for his actions, but in all I think Williams was the most “human” of all the people in this story.
I also felt the internal logic of the film was a little hard to stomach, and occasionally stepped into WTF territory. A final chase scene involving Arnie, Williams and the film’s Bad Guy has that bad guy actually saying the line “Let’s show ’em a 180”, before spinning a fleeing car around (180 degrees) and driving back into a hail of bullets from a pursuing Breacher. Why on Earth one might decide to execute an insane driving maneuver and possibly allow yourself to be killed, is the question I asked myself – and it must have been obvious because normally I don’t pick up on stuff like that the first time. It’s little things like this that undermine the serious threat-level tone Sabotage goes a long way to achieving.
Ayer’s command of the action is particularly strong. He doesn’t over-edit his sequences, although he does add a sense of wild, almost-out-of-control style in his mainly hand-held footage throughout the movie. A terrific DEA assault on a housing complex, with the team clearing a bunch of apartments in search of drugs (or the person/people responsible for the hit on their team) is white-knuckle tense, offset by the overly macho dialogue the characters insist on speaking throughout the process. Reducing all the characters to a series of squinting, chewing, trailer-worthy posturing quotes only serves to make us wonder if they’re actually human at all. The fact that they’re morally grey adds to the confusion – it’s okay to make people a little bit iffy in the ethics department, but for that to be a success, we (the audience) needs to be able to invest in them, and if all they’re doing is making jokes about sex, shit and killing, it’s a little hard to do that. Sabotage feels like Ayer wanted to make a ballsy B-movie, but felt uncomfortable straying too far into that kind of genre, instead trying to rein it in as a legitimate dramatic work. This uneven tone is what ultimately shackles Sabotage as an also-ran; the film isn’t a misfire or even a disappointment, but one gets the sense that it could have been truly great if it had chosen a single ideal and stuck with it.
Yet, for as many problems as I could find with Sabotage, Ayer delivers a knockout action film. The characters might be wooden or underdeveloped, but the story sprints along as if daring you to point things out before the bullets start flying. The gun-battles have an urgency and immediacy to them, a feeling of imminent death much like that which we saw in End Of Watch. I keep referring to Ayer’s previous film as a benchmark, and although Sabotage doesn’t quite live up to the promise Ayer might have hoped, it’s still a rock hard, rock solid, dynamite action film that has plenty of shocks to keep you gasping. It’s not smart, but it’s not stupid.