With nary an Ahnold quip, “Sabotage,” David Ayer‘s fetishistically violent action thriller, often feels like a misguided detour, a waste of goodwill amassed by the superior “End of Watch.” Doing away with the concept that guided the 2012 cop drama but retaining and supercharging its once-relatable hyper masculinity, “Sabotage” is wholly unpleasant, unfocused and downright ugly. Ayer’s filmography has often cast an unflinching eye on battered, perforated bodies, but here the attention feels invasive and even a bit gleeful. Every wound is flaunted and a series of gruesome autopsies feature a hungry, roving camera, floating over the torn skin, the bloated flesh, stripping away the humanity. One character is literally reduced to ground meat and Ayer holds on the remains with an intent that is lost on us.
Ostensibly a reinvention of Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s signature cigar-chomping demigod, “Sabotage” tests the action legend, here playing a grief stricken DEA task force commander John “Breacher,” a career agent with a stellar operations backlog. Breacher’s wife and son have been kidnapped by a Mexican drug cartel, who proceed to mail videos depicting the torture — and that’s only the beginning. Eight months later, Arnold leads a team of operators into a drug lord’s mansion. The bust is actually a cover up for a $10 million score, which the agents successfully hide, though not without losing a man in the process. When they return to extract the cash, it appears someone else has gotten to it first. With the team rendered immobile and under suspicion, Breacher bides his time.
Suddenly, the investigation is called off and the members are reunited and back in action. All is well, except the money is still missing and the team is being picked off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways. Is it the cartel, or someone a lot closer? The plot lifts from Agatha Christie‘s “And Then There Were None,” but neglects the mystery. Ayer is instead compelled to capture shouting matches that spark between Breacher’s cohorts, a cast that includes Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway and Mireille Enos. Everybody gets a nickname, like “Monster” or “Grinder.”
The camaraderie on display is arguably the most interesting aspect of the otherwise rote genre flick — these are people who have logged countless hours among the dregs of society and their coping methods unsurprisingly include physical provocation and controlled substances. We don’t get much more than some shoving-and-shouting matches, but what’s even more fascinating is the way Enos, the lone female in the group, must raise the stakes in order to remain on equal footing with the guys. She turns in a performance that we’re not sure is completely appropriate and a little fearless or just plain deranged. The actress gnaws through her dialogue, baring her teeth and nostrils as her eyes practically demand to be liberated from her skull.
Olivia Williams shows up as the other key female, an investigator inexplicably drawn to Breacher, because the plot demands it. Williams proceeds with a steely resolve that doesn’t translate into a genuine effort. Harold Perrineau makes an amicable appearance as her wisecracking partner. As the plot unfolds and Williams joins forces with Breacher for a solid chase scene marred by gory civilian deaths, the actresses’ muted performance, interrupted by moments of disgust or shock, may begin to mirror the audience’s reaction.
For those expecting an Arnold-centric romp akin to “The Last Stand” will be disappointed — the actor is sidelined but not unchallenged by the script, though whether his chops are up to par is debatable. When the mystery lazily resolves itself and the film zeroes in on Breacher, it feels more like a nod to the audience than an organic progression. The ending shoots for an operatic finish that reinforces the blurred lines between good and bad, but instead feels like a final, brutal thrill, a wheeze out of a film that ran out of legs a half hour prior. “Sabotage” is perfectly acceptable by its peculiar standards, the action skillfully rendered but the scarcity of character development and perplexing ethics make the picture an uneasy watch. [C-]