After serving two terms as The Guvernator, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back in the movie game but sadly none of his films have been doing terribly well at the box office (expect for The Expendables movies, but his role there is just a glorified cameo), which is a pity as this comeback of his has turned out to be really interesting and the films much better than the last few he made before he started to govern the state of California. The Last Stand was no work of art but it was a fun little genre piece, a siege movie of sorts with a touch of a western, and The Escape Plan was a hugely enjoyable prison flick/geriatric bromance.
Sabotage, directed by David Ayer (writer of Training Day and writer-director of End of Watch), might the most interesting movie Arnie has made in quite a while. It’s a lean, mean sleaze-fest that’s very violent and gruesome with mostly reprehensible characters that’s hard to sympathise with. Audiences and most critics seem to not think of that as a good time but in fact that’s exactly how this movie should be, given the subject matter.
This film concerns a Special Ops team in the DEA who covertly infiltrate drug cartels to take them down. These are the baddassiest of the badasses, a real wrecking crew of cops you don’t wanna mess with. But it also turns out they’re pretty corrupt as the movie starts with the team stealing a bit of money (from some drug lords albeit, but still not ethical). But someone else steals the money from them and then they start getting picked off, one by one.
Sabotage is yet another variation on the classic Ten Little Indians story (it’s original title was Ten, though the members of the team are actually nine), but it’s also a portrait of corruption and police brutality. In fact, there’s a lot going in this movie. This is not exactly a story of heroes or villains, at least not in the traditional sense. And even though there’s a murder mystery here it’s just as much of a whydunit as it is a whodunit.
But mostly Sabotage is a tale of (largely male) police camraderie and a portrayal of a certain world most people know little about, expect only superficially, and probably don’t want to know. Writer-director David Ayer has made a career of making movies about cops, often corrupt, working in bad neighborhoods and this time he’s taken things a step further.
The banter between the characters feels very authentic here, as it has often done in Ayers’s past work, and his flair for sleaziness and übermacho dialogue gets to run wild. The sleaziness of the characters (it feels like every other word they say is a cussword) rightly reflects the ugliness of everything this movie is trying to depict. These are cops who work hard and play hard, they kill their opponents without even flinching and then go to a strip club after a hard day of work. And of course they start a bar fight at the strip club.
All the violence in this movie is really brutal, with blood spattering in every direction and Ayer doesn’t hesitate to show someone’s guts in lying a pile or have a character fall into a massive pool of blood. But this just adds to the…well maybe not realism, but it doesn’t (always) feel very much like a fake movie world. There’s a touch of truth to the whole proceedings.
Ayer also has some fun with gender roles and he has two females characters who get to enjoy themselves in a world overflowing with testosterone. The Special Ops team has one female in the group (brilliantly played by Mireille Enos) and she’s just as badass as everyone else (though also an alcoholic and a drug addict) and possibly the most sadistic of the lot. The cop who gets the job of investigating the murders is also female (Olivia Williams, sporting short hair and a southern accent). These female characters are not here as ornaments or damsels in distress but tough and lean characters who can hold their own with the boys. This film even (just barely) passes the Bechdel test as these two characters converse briefly at one point about something else than a man.
And then there’s our man, Arnold Schwarzenegger. His character is described as a “legend” and “the man” and we see photos of him alongside former presidents and such (using actuals photos of Arnold with those men). Arnie is the most relaxed of his group, being the boss and much older than everyone, but he’s still the most badass. Schwarzenegger has never been much of a great actor, he’s more of a presence or a force of nature even. He can kick ass and spout one-liners and looks good while holding a massive gun, but the only time you see him play Shakespeare is while brandishing a machine gun. Still, the man has occasionally shown he’s capable of really good acting and his performance here is his best one in a long time. Ayer knows how to use Arnie’s persona and age (it’s worth considering if the role was written with him in mind) making him a man of few words and a man with a troubled history (he also gets to offend an overweight beaurocrat by saying “You with your 48% bodyfat!”). In a way his character feels a bit like an older version of his character Dutch from Predator. It’s also probably to his advantage that he’s part of a team here, and not always front and center in the movie (though he mostly is).
Fascinating as it is, Sabotage is still not exactly what you would call a great movie. It’s got its share of plot holes and clichéd moments (it also could have done with a less generic title) and the sleaziness is maybe a little too much at times. This film is perhaps more “interesting” than “good” but at least it’s very entertaining as well as somewhat thought-provoking and it’s refreshing to see a movie of this kind that doesn’t pretend to rise above the sordidness inherent in the material. It doesn’t so much embrace the nastiness as acknowledge it, while still having some fun with it.
The Good: Arnold Schwarzenegger giving one of the best performances of his career and a refreshing nastiness. It’s a movie that doesn’t try too hard to make it’s characters likable, just human.
The Bad: The plot gets less convincing as the movie goes on and doesn’t add up overall.
The Nasty: That pile of human guts, lying on the street.