Sabotage (United States, 2014)

March 28, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Sabotage Poster

Sabotage, from director David Ayer (the writer of Training Day and writer/director of End of Watch), is a cop-centered thriller wrapped around a whodunit. It also attempts the significant feat of re-inventing Arnold Schwarzenegger now that his days as a macho solo action hero are past (as has been proven by several post-governor box office disappointments). For most of its running length, Sabotage is a gritty, compelling motion picture with twists to make a pretzel envious. Unfortunately, it overstays its welcome. The final 10 minute sequence has a tacked-on, out-of-place feel and it sends an otherwise enjoyable motion picture careening over the side of a cliff.

Following his appearance in the original The Terminator, Schwarzenegger vowed to never again play a "bad guy." With the exception of Mr. Freeze in Batman & Robin, he has remained true to that promiseā€¦ until now. While his character in Sabotage, legendary DEA agent John "Breacher" Wharton, isn't precisely a villain, he's not as squeaky clean as the typical Schwarzenegger protagonist. Breacher is viewed by other cops with awe but his psyche is deeply scarred and events from his past influence his every action. When we first meet him, he and his team of elite agents have completed a major drug bust. They "liberate" $10 million from the stash to enrich their own bank accounts but, when they return to claim it from its hiding place, it's gone. Shortly thereafter, one-by-one, members of Breacher's team are killed in gory, ugly ways. As he tries to determine which member (or members) of his "family" could be a traitor, he finds himself at odds with the detective (Olivia Williams) charged with investigating the homicides.

From the first scene, in which we observe Breacher watching a disturbing snuff video, we're aware that this is grim territory for the normally gung-ho Schwarzenegger. He's got a harder edge and a darker backstory. It might be a stretch to argue that Schwarzenegger breaks new ground as far as his acting is concerned - his dialogue is often stilted and he relies on familiar props like dark sunglasses and big cigars - but this is a more serious performance than we have seen from him in a long while, if ever. Most of Schwarzenegger's characters tend toward the invulnerable; Breacher is anything but that. He's fallible, driven, and twisted.

The storyline is characterized by its share of twists and switchbacks. Although the mystery elements take a back seat to the more straightforward action/thriller ones (there's a lengthy car chase and several fights), Ayer does his best to keep the audience guessing. The Law of Character Conservation, which limits the possibilities insofar as the culprits' identities are concerned, circumscribes what Ayer can do but he throws in enough misdirection that it isn't immediately obvious who the betrayer is and what his/her motivations are.

Structurally, Sabotage is flawed. The main storyline is resolved 10-15 minutes before the end credits arrive. The action then stumbles down the blind alley of an extended epilogue intended to provide closure. It's an unnecessary and unfortunate turn of events whose inclusion makes one wonder whether the screenplay was subject to last-minute rewrites. Although this sequence may not be the most violent in the movie, it is easily the most nonsensical.

Ayer's style is anti-Miami Vice in that it embraces darkness and grittiness over flash. He's not a fancy director and his straightforward approach serves the story well. He doesn't shy away from graphic depictions of human viscera. Sabotage has more blood and gore than the average slasher film. There's significantly less hand-held camera work than in End of Watch - this is a boon to anyone subject to motion sickness.

One could argue that Sabotage works as a Schwarzenegger/cop thriller hybrid but it's questionable whether there's an audience clamoring for such a film. Those who appreciate the hard-R sensibility of Ayer's previous outings may find the former A-list action star's presence to be distracting. And those who identify themselves as Schwarzenegger fans may be disappointed by Breacher's seamy side. As interesting as the experiment might be in theory, there are too many problems in its execution to make this more than a passable experience for those with a liking for this sort of motion picture.

Sabotage (United States, 2014)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 2014-03-28
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity, Drugs)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1