[25 March 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In his continuing effort to be a relevant post-political career movie star again, Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried almost anything. He added his name to the aging action icon franchise The Expendables, then set out on his own for the High Noon-lite of The Last Stand and the lax buddy prison effort (with Sly Stallone) Escape Plan. This week he will be amping up his game, taking on the latest from Training Day‘s David Ayers and Swordfish‘s Skip Woods. Entitled Sabotage, it’s being sold as a quasi-realist DEA vs. drug cartels standoff. Lots of gun raised raids for Arnie and his co-stars Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Max Martin, and Mireille Enos, among others. The trailer tells us the plots revolves around a group of high intensity Feds who run afoul of a cartel, putting Schwarzenegger’s family in jeopardy…
...except, that’s not what the movie is about. Not at all. Well, wait a minute. Before we plow into this advertising ploy, perhaps we should put up a big fat SPOILER WARNING for those interested in seeing the film sans full plot details. The purpose of this piece is not to ruin the movie for you, but to provide a kind of caveat emptor, one the studio hopes you won’t have before settling in with your overpriced popcorn and equally expansive soda. You see, the storyline here is loosely based on Agatha Christie’s famous book from 1939, And Then There Were None, and for those of you familiar with the English mystery writer, there’s very little about drug cartels and families in peril in her work. No, Sabotage is a wholly different experience than the one promised by the trailer. As we said before, it’s a perfect example of a callous industry bait and switch.
In the film, Arnold plays John “Breacher” Wharton and he and his team head down to Mexico to raid a cartel compound. Their goal - a massive stack of money, untold millions, in the huge collection of greenbacks. Almost immediately, we see them doing something suspect. Instead of taking the house and calling in their cohorts, they stall. They move to a connecting bathroom, lift off a toilet, and proceed to steal $10 million of the money for themselves. Why? Well, that’s saved for a bit later, but needless to say, both the higher ups in the agency and the drug racket finds out that there is money missing. The government puts the squeeze on Schwarzenegger and his team while a gang of hired assassins comes after them individually. Before we know it, one member is killed when his RV is purposefully stalled across some train tracks, another is pinned to his ceiling and disemboweled, while yet another is murdered in his rural survivalist cabin.
You get the idea. While Arnie and his new sidekick - an FBI agent played by Olivia Williams - try to decipher the clues as to what’s going on, bodies are piling up like cord wood. Naturally, everyone thinks that Breacher and his team are guilty, but they don’t have the cash. Somehow, it was stolen from them while they were stealing it. Eventually, we learn that Mireilles Enos’ character, a crack-addicted loose cannon who is married to Worthington but screwing around on the side, is killing her cohorts because she got cheated out of her cash - cash they didn’t have in the first place. Turns out, however, that it was Breacher who took all the loot, using it to settle a score from several months before. And what is that score we speak of? That’s right…the cartel kidnapped his wife and son and murdered them. Our hero uses the $10 million to get the name of the man who did it, and, in a hail of bullets and fisticuffs, Breacher - ALONE - gets his vengeance.
So, what’s the problem? What’s the big deal about the trailer. Well, at the bottom of this piece you can find the offending preview, so give it a look before coming back here. We’ll wait…okay, good. Now you’ve seen it. Olivia Williams telling Arnold that the cartel has his family. The inference of torture. Schwarzenegger swearing payback, and his crack team of eccentrics armed to the teeth and ready to help with the retribution…except, none of that happens here. Williams’ FBI agent doesn’t tell Breacher anything about his family (she learns the information from Worthington during a late night heart to heart). The DEA agents don’t go out after cartel. Instead, they spend more time drinking and going to strip clubs than chasing down leads - and those leads would be in regard to who is picking them off, one by one, not who killed Breacher’s brood.
In fact, the whole premise of the trailer is the movie’s basic backstory, dealt with internally for about five minutes and even then the preview is not portraying it correctly. When Breacher’s family is taken, there is no time for payback. The cartel kills them, cuts them up and sends them back to America in pieces. The entire robbery is barely mentioned (it’s hinted at here and there) and the whole Ten Little Indians ideal that functions as a plot mechanic is left completely out. We are looking at a come-on that promises a man wronged and a bunch of bullet ballet yahoos ready to read those who wronged him the magazine-emptying riot act. Instead, the actual movie is the story of a bunch of dirty DEA agents, a theft gone catawampus, and a mystery over whose killing Breacher’s team one by one. Clearly, Open Road believes you’ll be more apt to attend a film featuring Arnie in full Commando mode than you will a film focusing on a sideways whodunit and a less than sympathetic group of suspects.
It’s happened before: Non-comedies using the only jokes in a narrative to prove to potential moviegoers that their favorite funnyman - Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray - hasn’t gone all serious on them; Sci-fi storylines focusing on the heroics, and not the heady future shock stuff; Characters edited in and out; Scenes substituted and/or snipped. But this may be one of the first times when a movie completely rewrites its storyline via the clever editing of its trailer material. The Sabotage audiences see on Friday will have very little to do with the version being pimped in the promos. While the actual film is serviceable (a full review will be arriving in a couple of days), it’s not the one being sold. For two minutes and thirty seconds, we are witness to one angry family man using his DEA placement and well-armed colleagues to put the smack down on the evil cartels. Instead, the 100 minute Sabotage is an uneven combination of mystery and blood red herrings.
As the Latin suggests, let the buyer beware.