Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Sam Worthington,Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Josh Holloway, Mireille Enos
(Open Road; US theatrical: 28 Mar 2014 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Mar 2014 (General release); 2014)
When you look back over his career, when you consider the movies he made in the mid-‘80s and early ‘90s, there’s no denying one thing: Arnold Schwarzenegger was a major league movie star. Not a dime a dozen A-lister, but an international draw of such amazing box office appeal that he could greenlight anything just be expressing interest in it. His run was phenomenal. His desire to enter politics questionable. In the end, however, Schwarzenegger came out unscathed, a love child with his maid merely reducing him to a representative industry icon. Now, in the effort to rebuild his brand, he’s going back to what made him a myth: violence, action, and familiarity. With his latest, Sabotage, the former Mr. Olympia comes up trumps in the writer (Skip Woods) and director (David Ayer) department. Where he fails, however, is in fine-tuning this material to be anything other than weird whodunit where a lunk-headed mystery is far more important than any kind of ass kicking or fire fights.
As part of a prolific bait and switch on the part of Open Road, the story here doesn’t center on a DEA legend and his ragtag team of degenerate underlings. Instead, we get Ah-nold as John “Breacher” Wharton, a dedicated law enforcement official who decides to take matters into his own hands when his wife and son are killed by a drug cartel (this is not a spoiler, since we learn this within the first five minutes of the movie - and there are still 105 to go). During another raid with his group of hard drinking, hard drugging, hard deflowering pervs—James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington), his cokehead wife Lizzy (Mireille Enos), macho lunkhead Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello), smooth operator Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terence Howard), Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway) and Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini)—he decides to steal $10 million as some manner of metaphysical payback.
Naturally, both the Feds and the fiends find out that Breacher has robbed the bank, and they want to nail this man and his misfits. Unfortunately, the burglary was bungled and no one has the money. It was apparently stolen from the thieves. That doesn’t stop the villains from putting out a hit on the gang and when bodies start piling up, the FBI gets involved. An agent named Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) becomes Breacher’s unexpected ally, helping him put together the pieces of the puzzle regarding who is killing his crew while the rest of his team slowly falls apart. Eventually, someone snitches, a set-up is suspected, and we learn who is really behind this baffling case of “find the missing cash”. The ending offers up a senseless bloodbath which does little except provide closure for one character and a lot of plot holes for the audience.
Because he is such a superstar, former or not, and so in tune with what works for his limited performance persona, Arnold Schwarzenegger is excellent in Sabotage. He gives a real layerede performance, full of bravado and vulnerability, his character constantly at odds with what he did (breaking the law and trying to steal the drug money) and playing father figure to his unruly collection of tatted up brats. This collection of Central Casting cliches, including a bro, a whore, a lothario, a loose cannon, a realist and a reactionary are nothing more than F-bomb dropping victim fodder, a group of future corpses being used to justify the film’s semi-slasher like And Then There Were None leanings. Yes, this is supposedly based on Agatha Christie’s classic novel, but don’t worry. The closest Sabotage comes to a clockwork mystery is the constant clamoring for clues. We get hair fibers, fingerprints, and piles of possible dossiers. None of them add up to anything engaging.
Frankly, Ayer and Woods took the wrong approach here. The movie being sold in the trailers is the film they should have made. Amend that, they should have dropped the dopey dead family angle all together and given Schwarzenegger’s Breacher a less obvious reason for demanding retribution. In films like Street Kings, Training Day, and End of Watch, Ayer masterfully balanced noticeable plot contrivance with strong character work. Here, the focus should have been on a DEA raid gone bad, or a corrupt seed sprouting resentment within the ranks. Perhaps even ditch the entire action angle and deal with these well-armed delinquents as people, not cinematic chess pawns. A movie made up of their personal faults and foibles would be a lot better than a lame whodunit with a consistently shrinking suspect pool.
Indeed, by the time of the double denouement (the killer is ID’d, as is the real thief) we no longer want to know the truth. We just want more moments like the engaging car chase through dark Atlanta streets, or the mid-movie attempt to track potential hitmen in a dilapidated urban slum. These are the reasons to see Sabotage, not some tired narrative gimmick already perfected by a British writer 70 years ago and even then Woods doesn’t get things right. The reason And Then There Were None worked so well is that the entire story was a set-up for a last act twist that took the reader’s breath away. In essence, it begat the entire “untrustworthy narrator” ideal. Here, aside from a couple of sound performances, nothing gives us pause. We keep waiting for the movie to pop. All it does is plod.
At nearly two hours and with nothing truly warranting such a length, Sabotage will become a test. It will gauge how an audience reacts fiscally to Arnold 2.0. It will tell studios whether to continue such classic bait and switch marketing and measure a viewers tolerance for inertia over action. This is no 100% pure adrenalin ride. Instead, it’s a collection of conceits that never come together either narratively or visually (thankfully, Ayer avoids the nausea inducing first person POV that plagued the otherwise decent End of Watch). During the ‘80s and ‘90s, Arnold and his collaborators set the action movie benchmark so high that it took a true outsider, John Woo, to reconfigure it. Sabotage won’t set any new standards, but it’s a serviceable entertainment for those who don’t mind being misled.