Sabotage had so much potential to turn into an uber-violent DEA version of End of Watch, too bad it ends up as kind of a stale slasher flick for the gun nut crowd. We already know from watching an excellent film like End of Watch and even a terrible one like Street Kings that writer/director/cop dialogue extraordinaire David Ayer has an authentic eye when it comes to depicting the intimate inner world of police officers.
Even going back as far as his screenplays for Training Day and Dark Blue, Ayer always had a deft ear for the more than potentially offensive yet realistic banter between cops and the strict social dynamics and rules within their tightly knit world. Sabotage, depicting the downfall of a family of hardcore anti-cartel DEA agents, has similar dialogue that rings true, delivered through natural performances by an engaging and eclectic cast.
Sure, sometimes they crack more homophobic jokes than The Westboro Baptist Church and the blatant macho posturing is pumped with enough testosterone to force a beta male like me to pretend to be offended while hiding in a far-away corner with my tail between my legs, but Ayer always manages to construct an unyielding family dynamic between these characters. Just because they frequently look like they’re about to kick each other’s asses doesn’t mean they won’t take a bullet for one another at a second’s notice.
The story is extremely simple, which could have worked as a vessel to create a taut, character-driven thriller, if only the third act didn’t crash and burn in a spectacularly absurd fashion. Tough-as-nails DEA agent John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team of ultimate badasses attempt to steal ten million dollars from a violent drug cartel, only to find themselves double-crossed when the money goes missing.
Six months later, after being suspended from duty due to an extensive investigation on the lost cash, the team is put back in action. However, their glee in the possibility of mowing down more bad guys is cut short when they start getting killed in elaborate, gorier-than-Saw ways and have to find out who’s behind the murders before they all end up taking a dirt nap.
Ayer’s ear for authenticity in dialogue forces the otherwise stilted Schwarzenegger to stretch his acting chops like never before as he has to construct a charismatic and cool authority figure who has to keep his team together with the use of his wit and character almost more than the flex of his biceps.
A back-story into the character reveals early on that his wife and child were brutally tortured and murdered by a Mexican drug cartel. The inner torture in these scenes convey actual emotions, so much so that I wish they used the momentum to reshoot some scenes in Collateral Damage, where Arnold was supposed to be devastated by the death of his wife and baby but ended up looking mildly constipated.
Most of the film plays out like a gritty and raw procedural, as Breacher and homicide detective Caroline (Olivia Williams) try to put the pieces of the investigation as well the bloody body parts together. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the studio realizes that they’re supposed to be marketing an Ah-nold vehicle and pumps the final act up with a ludicrous shoot-out, only to link to a climax that plays out like a Peter Berg-directed version of Commando.
Ayer focuses on the uncompromising violence and the gory details of the murders so much that Sabotage pretty much answers the question no one ever asked: "What if a grindhouse director helmed a Schwarzenegger vehicle?" Which begs another question: Who the hell is this movie for?
It’s too contrived and hokey to work as a gritty, realistic action-thriller, yet it’s too raw, grimy and unpleasant to work as a goofy Ah-nold movie you’d want to get drunk, kick back and have a good time with. In this stage, it will only work to frustrate fans of End of Watch as well as those who think Eraser is underrated.