Brutal, bloody and unbowed
There’s no denying that an ultimately incoherent plot resolution fatally wounds this gritty action thriller, but it still stands out as a refreshingly atypical entry in Arnie’s film history.As you might only expect from the writer of Training Day, Dark Blue and End of Watch (the last of which he also directed), David Ayer’s Sabotage is a suitably harsh look at the darker side of law enforcement. He’s dealt with corrupt cops; he’s dealt with gang violence and now he’s graduated to an elite special tactical team of DEA Agents who are facing off against powerful drug cartels. It’s perfect hunting ground, and Ayer paints an authentic portrait of elite officers who spend so much time putting their lives on the line that they believe themselves above the normal rules and regulations that govern society; above the law.To this end, Ayer immediately throws us into the middle of the team’s latest operation, as they bust into a Cartel safe-house, tactically shooting their way to a treasure trove of blood money – $200 Million – from which they siphon a little off the top and blow the remainder up to cover their tracks. Somehow – and it’s one of the harder-to-believe plot points – their superiors immediately know about the missing money and place the entire team under scrutiny. But the real trouble comes when the team members find themselves under siege from a mysterious unknown force – potentially the drug cartel they stole from – who appear intent on slaughtering them one by one.
Certainly Ayer plays to his strengths, and there’s no denying that he quickly establishes – through an opening, and then pervasive, torture theme – the dark and menacing undertone of the piece, and we’re submerged in a world of violent revenge and vicious exit wounds. Nobody is innocent, nobody is above suspicion, and, nobody is untouchable. Characters die bloody, desperate deaths both on and off-screen - some then told using innovative interspliced flashback techniques - and this leaves you with a sense that their murders are unstoppable. Whether cursed or doomed, this crew are marked for death.
Of course, Ayer’s joint screenplay with Skip Woods wasn’t actually based on an original story by him, but actually on Agatha Christie’s 1939 novel And Then There Were None (FKA Ten Little Indians), which is a part of why this film doesn’t ultimately hang together. Christie’s book was about ten criminals who are lured to a meeting where they are mysteriously picked off one by one. Unfortunately, whilst Christie’s premise is interesting, its denouement has never been all that satisfying in any of the attempted adaptations, or even in the original book itself. And that’s a big problem for Ayer’s film, which builds a promising, tense first half, before starting to fall apart.
The gripping premise starts to fall apart once you realise that nobody really had a handle on how to tie it up all satisfactorily.
The blame can’t entirely be laid at the doorstep of the writer/director, however, as it appears that this was not his first cut, and that the Studios made an executive decision and insisted upon some judicious editing (and potentially even an entirely new cobbled-on, out for justice, epilogue) to streamline what was reportedly a 3-hour mystery thriller into a more conventional 110-minute actioner. Hell, even the name was changed from the logical “The Ten” to the perfectly good “Breacher” (Arnie’s character’s nickname) to the wholly generic and illogical, Sabotage. Whilst I can appreciate that all of these – and perhaps many more – changes were probably inevitable as soon as Arnold Schwarzenegger signed on-board, any substantial non-director-driven interference with a movie’s structure can be devastating. And this is no exception.
Schwarzenegger himself, surprisingly, remains arguably the strongest part of the movie. Indeed it’s perfectly possible that he himself wanted this not to be a conventional actioner; wanted it to stand out in his canon of work, but Studios being Studios, that was simply not to be. Nevertheless, the core of his character remains intact and his performance still stands out. He’s not – and probably never will be – an actor renowned for his versatility, but it’s arguably not only the first of his post-political-career features where he gets lost in the role, but perhaps even the first in his entire career. It’s refreshing to see him commit so fully to a part and, despite the sour taste and inevitable head-scratching that the butchered story leaves you with, you just about forget that it’s even him in the film.
Despite its flaws, Sabotage stands out as one of the first Arnie films where you forget that it’s an Arnie film.
The supporting cast also get swept up in Ayer’s murky world; his stories have served the likes of Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, Kurt Russell and, more recently, Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena, well, allowing them all to convince in oftentimes atypical roles, and here the ensemble cast are similarly frequently unrecognisable. From Sam Worthington – who does far better in smaller features like this and Texas Killing Fields than he does in CG-driven blockbusters – to Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello (probably better known for his TV work in True Blood and One Tree Hill); from Lost’s Josh Holloway to Pacific Rim’s Max Martini, all of them embrace their hard to kill team member positions and you may not even register it’s them until after you’ve checked up on the cast credits.
It’s only perhaps World War Z’s Mirelle Enos, who tries a little bit too hard to convince as the brash female member of the team, and fails somewhat (a last minute replacement for a pregnant Malin ‘Watchmen’ Akerman), and Terrence Howard who don’t fit in, with Howard failing more because he’s not given any material to work with until it’s far, far too late. Beyond the team, the homicide investigators Olivia Williams (Dollhouse) and Harold Perrineau (also from Lost) take a little time to settle in, but share some nice banter, with Williams suffering more from contrived plot points than anything else.
Still, the skills of the director – who puts his usual stylish shaky-cam, hand-held, gun point-of-view cam, reverse gun point-of-view cam flourishes to great effect, and, as aforementioned, employs flashbacks innovatively – and the surprisingly strong commitment of the cast, don’t stand a chance against the sheer volume of plot inconsistencies, incoherence and ultimately anticlimactic contrived resolution. Again, it’s possible that this is a holdover from Agatha Christie’s source work, because it just doesn’t lend itself towards a satisfactory conclusion, but it’s a shame that Ayer doesn’t make good on such a promising idea, particularly after having cleverly updated it in such an unusual modern environment.
Likely to remain little more than a dark curio in Arnie's career, Sabotage is a fatally flawed blend of The Shield and Final Destination.
If there was ever a 3-hour cut, then it would sure make for an interesting watch but it seems unlikely that that will ever happen, and what we’re left with here is a mottled, bloody mess. Perhaps knowing how unforgivably flawed it is in advance will make it a more tolerable experience should you choose to investigate this film, because anybody expecting either a solid Arnie actioner or a coherent David Ayer thriller will be sorely disappointed.
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