by Philip Price
First and foremost, I really wanted to love “Sabotage.” Like, I was totally up for it and was ready to have just a ridiculous amount of mind-numbing fun and by all accounts audiences had every right to expect the same things. Thinking about it in the light that director David Ayer was coming off one of his better written films with easily his best directing job to date and stacked with a cast as lumbering and raucous as that of Arnie's ‘Expendables’ cohorts with names just slightly less major, but even more credible to the point where I really thought this had the shot to turn out to be something quietly major, a slight cultural mainstay that would fester on the minds of cinephiles over the years and become regarded as a well-loved box office flop that found its following long after it left the theaters. There were glimmers of hope on the horizon when the first action-packed trailer premiered and was followed by several others complete with red-band access as well. There is an interesting film somewhere in here and as I look through my notes I jotted down while watching the film, I keep coming across pieces where I remember wanting so much for this to become that something better, that kind of retrospective Arnold Schwarzenegger film that did as much to entertain us in the moment as it also gave us a look at how a man in his late 60s finds himself slipping in terms of esteem and credibility while having to come to terms with his physical limitations. In a sense, I wanted a large metaphorical action drama that mirrored the life of our star, but instead, “Sabotage” is as well thought out as the plan at the heart of the plot. It feels quickly shot, rushed through editing with a soundtrack that couldn't sound more generic and a group of supporting actors that almost make this feel like someone’s first student film. It is hard to take a film seriously when it tries so hard to be exactly that, but by the time the smoke from the opening sequence has dispersed and we begin to get to know the characters involved and are forced to listen to their incessant cussing to the point it actually begins to insult their own intelligence and we no longer buy that these people could do these jobs effectively, the curtain has been pulled back and we realize what we're actually in for is a mess of a flick in perfectly positioned B-movie clothing.
That first scene, that introductory action sequence is what gives us that slight hope for the film though. While it is still as sloppily shot as the rest of the action scenes in the film, there is a gusto to it that cannot be found later on and an energy that runs wild through the members of John "Breacher" Wharton's (Schwarzenegger) team. They are comfortable with one another to the point (and much further past, I must say) that they can assign blame on who farted and then hurl insults at that person to the point a typical person might want to off themselves, but it is clear this is all just a part of hyping themselves up, of pushing their adrenaline to the highest possible level so that when they burst through the gates of a mansion filled with what are no doubt members of a Mexican cartel they have no fear in their eyes. As an innocent bystander we take the code of honor these guys carry with them as a given so when they reach the room where the large pile of money is hidden and they begin to place stacks of bills into plastic baggies and file them under a toilet down into the sewer we question what is actually going on here. This brings us to the point of what can be said in well-regards to the film in that it doesn't allow itself to simply be about the one big bad that got away in Breacher's past that has come back to haunt him nor does it give us the simple straightforward mission of the team coming together to overtake an escaped druglord, but instead the film makes it all about the central members of our undercover operations squad. While this idea for the narrative still doesn't become apparent until about half an hour or so in the bad news is also that there is never any real chemistry between the team that allows us to buy into the camaraderie they are trying to have us buy. The most interesting aspect of the film is that of Schwarzenegger's character, but the emotional weight that Breacher is supposed to be carrying never becomes apparent because it is simply too much for the actor to handle. In one scene he is wrought with sadness and defeat while the next he walks out carrying a gun and smoking a cigar like nothing ever happened and that he doesn't carry a burden. He essentially thinks he can get away with what he's best known for in the majority of his scenes while bringing in what acting chops he can muster for those that demand it while the overall effect of the performance is incoherent and only lends to the messy feeling of the final product.
It makes one wonder if the actual plot the film puts into motion and allows to play out is never convincing simply because it is bad writing (the guy who "wrote" “A Good Day to Die Hard” penned this, need I say more?) or if it's because Schwarzenegger is never as convincing as he needs to be to pull it off. The film tries to make you second guess what you already know multiple times and at certain points you want to let it have you, but we all realize who the old pro is in the room and if you still see that as a spoiler forty-five minutes into the film (and that's being kind) then I'm sorry, but it's just not. This all of course paired with the fact the execution of the film feels lazy makes it hard to come up with many excuses as to why some people might enjoy this. This is especially true with the dialogue and character development. This ridiculous group of muscled-up, tattooed bad boys (and one girl) are blurring the lines between who they are supposed to be pretending to be and who they truly are. We have Sam Worthington (oh, how his once rising star has fallen) as James "Monster" Murray, Joe Manganiello (doing nothing but picking up a quick buck between “True Blood” and “Magic Mike XXL” it seems) as Joe "Grinder" Phillips (and yes, they all have names like this), Josh Holloway (somebody fire this guy’s agent; “Paranoia,” “Battle of the Year” and now this?) as Eddie "Neck" Jordan, Terrence Howard (I really have nothing to say, Howard takes so many roles I don't think the guy even reads the scripts) as Julius "Sugar" Edmonds and Mireille Enos of “World War Z” and “The Killing” who is the only person in the entire cast who gives a well-rounded, nuanced performance. As Lizzy, Enos straddles the line between being the law and breaking it more than any of her co-workers and in her development from undercover hooker to a substance abusing, strung-out good for nothing she makes us feel whether or not everything these people go through in their line of work and all the lives they take are really worth it or if trying to defend life is just as much killing yourself when you have to bear the troubles that come with that responsibility. “Sabotage” would have been better off to purely focus on Lizzy, but instead she too is placed among these brutes where character development is defined as each of them constantly trying to out-curse and out-do one another to prove just how outlandish and care-free they can be with any aspect of their lives.
The film would have had even better chances of being interesting and complex if it instead were about the relationship between the different government agencies. There is a moment where detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams doing one of the worst Southern accents ever) and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau) go to the DEA to ask for assistance in solving the case of why Breacher's team is being taken out one by one and the tension in that scene alone with the implied overtones the audience comes away with are greater and more gripping than anything else in the other one hundred minutes the film has to offer. There are nicely sprinkled bits by character actors throughout including Gary Grubbs who is literally only in this thing for a matter of minutes and whose character you'd think would amount to more later on, but never does. Max Martini and Kevin Vance play fellow team members to Schwarzenegger's rag tag crew, but I'm sure by their lack of star power you can guess how long each of them stick around for. While I am still trying to get over the disappointment I have with Sabotage I can't help but wonder why Ayer would waste his time on something so run of the mill? Maybe it was the casting, as that is surely what pulled me into being interested as I expected nothing less than typical from its narrative, but to at least have a good time with the film as I did “Escape Plan” and “The Last Stand” last year, but “Sabotage” is a drag and even as, late in the game, things begin to actually develop and some emotional resonance comes into play the film devolves once again into what it knows best: pointless and incoherent gun fights. Ayer is clearly a meticulous storyteller as his script's for “Training Day” and “Dark Blue” gave way to even more interesting films and while “End of Watch” saw his directorial hand moving in the right direction after the fine, but rather plain sophomore effort that was “Street Kings” it was clear from the beginning with “Harsh Times” that the guy had a knack for telling gritty, cop stories. I don't know if it is the fact this was a quick little side project that was thrown in between “End of Watch” and his much anticipated “Fury” this fall, but the director has no presence here as even the highlighted action scenes don't elicit the art of what these people do for a living, but more or less look and sound like nothing more than a mess of bullets. We sympathize with Arnie (because this feels like the final nail in his action star coffin) and his plight, but the way his story has been told here just isn't entertaining or at all well executed enough to care.