sabotage-image07

Everybody a badass.

I waited forever for this movie to come out. It looked like a lean, mean action movie with a cast so unlikely that it just had to be great. Finally, the wait was over and I got to sit down and watch Sabotage and see not only if its weird cast panned out, but if it deserved the mixed and generally underwhelmed reviews that it received.

Whether or not you’re going to go for this movie or just find it kind of bland and familiar depends a lot on what kind of audience you are. Being that I prize a commitment toward objectivity (as close as I can get anyway) when writing criticism, it may seem strange for me to say that. But the truth is that, from the kinds of objective criteria by which I’d judge a film, Sabotage is maybe a notch above solid and I’ll tell you all about that in a bit. On the other hand, though, your mileage with this movie is going to depend a lot more on subjective stuff like how realistic you like your bullet wounds or how easily you buy these actors, their roles, and their antics.

For me, it’s all pretty easy and fun to get into. There’s a nice mixture of throwback and new hotness in Sabotage. There’s a wetness and realism to the violence that some may not appreciate. I definitely did. Sabotage is about as solid an R action movie as it gets these days. But it also has some social commentary and a lot of wit in a script that could have been leaner and less considerate. It’s not quite a “smart” movie, but Sabotage‘s dialogue and unpredictability may surprise you. Then again, this is a David Ayer film (End of Watch, Training Day) so maybe it won’t.CH__8225.JPG

Sometimes dysfunctional, though.

Sabotage is about a team of DEA Agents united by a cowboy attitude and the ironclad will of one man, John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Breacher is repeatedly referred to as “daddy” or as the symbolic father of his squad. This is no wonder as they are a bunch of unruly children, a modern day Wild Bunch in their own minds.

In one of the opening scenes, the team steals $10mil from a Mexican drug cartel. The money goes missing and no one knows who took it, but the DEA knows it was taken and strongly suspect Breacher and his team. They can’t prove anything, so they bench the team for six months until the investigation reaches the end of its lifespan. Then they start dropping dead, leaving Breacher to team up with a sarcastic, competent FBI detective Caroline (Olivia Williams), to suss out the who and why. Even though everybody is pretty sure the team is just paying for all that money in pounds of flesh, the sassy detective isn’t so sure and keeps pulling at threads until stuff comes loose. In this sense, there’s a bit of old fashioned detective story mixed in with the gritty modern cop movie.

sabotage-image08

Caroline don’t take shit.

Sabotage is at its best when its huge cast pairs off. The most unexpected and best of these are whenever Harold Perinneau and Olivia Williams are together. They get across years of casework and camaraderie in a few well-placed and entertaining exchanges. Williams really does stand out in this movie, playing off every other cast member with an engaging mix of bewilderment, nerve, and dry wit. Likewise, Mireille Enos is probably the other main stand out in her role as Lizzy, the team’s most aggressive and unpredictable member. Both play women who have carved their way into a traditionally male-dominated world, but the movie doesn’t draw attention to this. Instead, these are women who’ve already been there and done that and are past it, though its left marks.

The male cast is mostly made up of familiar faces doing small roles before they are killed off, almost horror movie style. Because Breacher’s team is pretty much a bunch of unrepentant assholes, the audience’s reaction to their deaths may also play much like in a horror movie where half the fun is seeing who gets dropped next (and how). That said, there are a few surprises beyond the aforementioned Perinneau (though he’s always solid). Sam Worthington, playing Monster the Aryan-styled husband to Enos’s Lizzy, gets to play against his character’s edgy appearance with a current of vulnerability and earnestness. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a great performance, but it rates as a solid chunk of character acting that may be what Worthington should have been doing all along.

sabotage

Even this sequence is less outlandish and Hollywood than you might expect.

One of this movie’s other strengths, and I’d say this is an objective quality also, is that it skews toward realism, or authenticity if you like that better, in its action scenes. Breacher’s team feels like a real team of DEA doorkickers, adapting military tactics to the drug war. They call out instructions, coordinate their movements, and function the way you’d think such a team would. In most movies, such squads work together as if connected by telepathy, but it seems much more realistic that they’d call the plays to each other in much the same way as a sports team does.

Little details like that are appreciated, since Sabotage could easily have been a glossier and less impactful exercise.

602px-Sabotage-CZ75-1

Enos steals most of her scenes, showcasing a side of her skillset that fans of The Killing ain’t yet seen.

To the extent that Sabotage offers any social commentary, I’d say it fits into a general narrative of corruption in the lettered agencies and a more specific volley at the inherent dangers and problematic nature of the drug war. Though this isn’t an incisive indictment of America’s drug culture ala The Counselor, Sabotage‘s plot and punch rely completely on the understanding that it’s unclear whether Feds, kitted out for urban warfare and empowered to go pretty far in their mandate, are much better than the cartel soldiers they’re fighting. But like I say, the movie doesn’t really dwell on this so it feels a bit more like a piece of topicality snatched out of the air to build a story around.

And that story is really about one man’s ruthless pursuit of revenge. Sabotage is a movie that has a fair bit going on under the hood, and may have been something singular if it were more focused. Its ability to competently spin so many basketballs is part of its charm, though, I’d say. Take, for instance, that pursuit of revenge. With everything going on, it’s easy to forget the not so subtle hints we get that Breacher is running a different game, and his actions go together with those hints to form a bit of a rough sketch character study. Here’s a guy willing to use people, sacrifice people, for the sake of a pure and singular purpose that almost feels like it belongs to a different story. Indeed, the last scene is a bit of indulgence that feels somewhat at once discordant and perfectly in key with the rest of the film. Suddenly, Sabotage becomes a revenge Western complete with big fucking hats.

sabotage-618x400

Poor Alcide.

Personally, I’m enjoying this resurgence in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. I like that he’s playing closer to his actual age and assuming the role of patriarch, father, and general more often. Sabotage uses little of the charm he still very much has at his disposal, but it shows a lean and calculated side of his abilities, the rare time where he gets to act up some of the intelligence his appearance belies.

On the other hand, Sabotage has two of the best roles for actresses in the late 30’s to late 40’s age range this side of a Sandra Bullock movie and that counts for something too. I think it’s really great that a movie full of scenery-chewing macho men is completely owned by two women who get to show them up every second scene.

I don’t think that Sabotage is going to light anybody’s world on fire, but it’s a nice demonstration of Ayer’s continued commitment to solid cop movies with flashy but interesting casting. It’s also a nice demonstration that Schwarzenegger isn’t as old and tired as he may sometimes play up when a role calls for it. He’s still got the presence, physicality, and chops to bring it.

Advertisements