Read on to see if Arnold redeems himself in David Ayer's gritty and violent Sabotage.
Writer/Director David Ayer is a well-known asset among those bringing gritty drama/action flicks to the big screen. Although he had scripted 2001's The Fast & The Furious, Ayer gained his greatest popularity that same year for the Oscar-winning Training Day. His up-and-coming status is in stark contrast to that of Actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who's seen his star diminish since returning to acting in 2010. For both, the release of Sabotage is important in defining where each stands in their respective careers. For Ayer, it's clearly filled with high-octane; for Arnold, it's something quite different.
DEA Agent John 'Breacher' Warton (Schwarzenegger) and his elite strike team form a dangerous response to the drug war. Murray (Sam Worthington), Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Jordan (Josh Holloway) and Edmonds (Terrance Howard) treat each other like quarreling brothers, with Breacher acting as their surrogate parent. But away from the missions, the team is unpredictable and even dangerous: the strung-out Lizzy (Mireille Enos) and the drunk Roberts (Max Martini) are just as likely to brawl with one another as save each other's bacon. The team's allegiance come to a head when the DEA launches an investigation into the whereabouts of $10 million lost during a raid on a cartel. But we soon learn that the team's history with the organization is far darker than anyone expects. As murder envelopes the team, an FBI agent (Olivia Williams) begins to unravel the details, leading her and Breacher down a rabbit hole that only one will emerge from alive.
Our feelings about Sabotage span the range of emotions, leaving us stuck somewhere between mild disappointment and a healthy appreciation for the effort made. A film lives and dies by the details, and so few of the film's characters are worthy of our love or even attention. The only one we even tacitly endorse turns out to be a well-played pawn, a victim of best intentions. Perhaps that was Ayer's point, but his deep betrayal of the characters is equaled only by the effort they make to deflect the blows. A film cannot exist on grit alone, but Sabotage tries its best, even if its main character can longer carry a movie.
Much like his character, Arnold seems tired and even a bit empty, a man with a deep and glorious past but lacking much of a future. As Breacher, he looks down at his teammates' wild antics like that of a grandfather who doesn't understand this new generation. And just like Breacher, Arnold is no longer plays the wild hero we came to love, but a morally ambiguous figure who will readily stand in the shadows instead of a giant gun at his side. Whether he carries that deeper dramatic side off is up to the audience to decide, but his cast represents the most talented of his career, in many ways eclipsing him in every scene. Enos plays the most unstable of the lot, but everyone from Manganiello to Worthington do their best to offset the rather thin script. Even SJF favorites Howard and Martini get their scenes, with the latter in a particularly funny one that's part of the explicit trailer. Their on-the-edge lives teeter dangerously into murderous rage, and Arnold seems like the last one who can contain them.
Ayer manages to craft a decent side plot with Williams and Schwarzenegger, leaving the former Dollhouse star holding the bag after a particularly good ending. We didn't like the overly-simplistic revenge epilogue, which felt like someone else shot it other than Cinematographer Bruce McCleery. It's so straight-up in its approach that it reminds us of the 80's Arnold rather than the deeper one Ayer desperately tries to invent. Ayer is clearly an excellent director, crafting environments that seem so far removed from the lives of ordinary people. His strength lies in an ability to get the most out of his actors, even if his own script lacks the emotional heft. Had anyone else produced Sabotage, the results would have been disastrous; instead, he merely keeps the ship from veering too far off course by mitigating several puzzling plot holes. The result is a film we could have loved but only merely like.
Sabotage endorses the gritty, distrusting world of law enforcement that's sadly become so popular in American films. It's foul-mouthed, ugly, and absolutely unapologetic, but do such qualities make for good cinema? Depending on how you look at it, Sabotage either ups the ante or descends to new lows, clearly establishing itself as the ultra-violent end of Ayer's spectrum. Schwarzenegger is outperformed at every turn by the best cast we've seen this year so far, but even they can't keep the thin story from tearing apart under its own weight. Whether moviegoers will embrace this new Arnold is anyone's guess, but judging by his recent films the potential for a huge box office draw seems dubious at best.
Sabotage is rated R for everything under the sun and has a runtime of 109 minutes.
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