Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name is only about one-seventh the font size of the title on the poster of Sabotage, formerly Breacher, formerly Ten, his third attempt — after the full-auto western The Last Stand and the goofy Stallone-co-headlined prison-break joint Escape Plan — in 14 months at a post-gubernatorial comeback. A dirty half-dozen of his co-stars get equal-font-size, name-above-title status, too. Harold Perrineau, from Romeo + Juliet, the Matrix sequels, and LOST, has more lines than several of those above-the-line cast members; in fact, he’s the man charged with informing us that Schwarzenegger’s character, veteran Drug Enforcement Administration agent John “Breacher” Wharton, is “a drug-war god.” Still Perrineau’s name is buried in the credits. He should fire his agent.
This isn’t a Schwarzenegger solo vehicle, is the point. It’s a bloody-minded, testosterone-soaked team movie wherein Arnold is merely the Alpha Prime among a pack of Alphas getting picked off one by one — just like he was in Predator 27 years ago, when he was only about 40. (Caught it on the Spike network lately? It holds up.) Besides Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, and Josh Holloway, this neck-tatted band of brothers — an elite DEA undercover squad and SWAT team who all have G.I. Joe-style nicknames like “Monster” and “Pyro” — features Mireille Enos as a drug-addled alpha female, easily the baddest of the bunch.
Naturally, her job is to infiltrate cartels by posing as a whore. In the crisply executed drug-raid-or-is-it? that opens the movie, the sleazo she’s distracting refuses the condom she offers him, saying he wants her “raw.” So maybe we cheer a little louder 40 seconds later when she disarms and kills him with his own pistol, then vaults over a balcony to meet the DEA battlewagon that’s just crashed through the front gate, quick-changes her cocktail dress for fatigues and body armor, and rejoins the fray — all after snorting a line of dodgy coke.
So far, so great.
SURGEON GENERAL’S WARNING: Sabotage is vulgar. It’s violent. It’s profane. It’s preposterous. It’s deeply irresponsible and impossible to defend rationally. Q: Is it the most amusing film the Austrian Oak has been a part of since the nuclear terrorism comedy True Lies, 20 years, two terms in office, and several flops ago? A: Pretty much.
This is the disreputable, even disgusting diversion the Expendables pictures should’ve been. Following a decade and change of overpixelated, PG-13-rated, danger-free blockbusters wrapped in spandex and 3D glasses or else marred by the wide-area excitement-negation field known as Vin Diesel, Sabotage, for all its missteps, still goes down like a belt of bourbon after years of sipping Diet Pepsi.
For this we must thank co-writer and director David Ayer. He wrote Training Day, as will no doubt be inscribed on his tombstone. That crooked-cop flick — a sort of buddy movie in reverse — started off even stronger and took longer to go off the rails than Sabotage ultimately does. More recently, Ayer wrote and directed the experimental beat-cop drama End of Watch. (He also penned the first of the Fast and Furiouses before leaving that wheel-spinning, inexplicably long-lived franchise in lesser hands.)
Sabotage dials back End of Watch‘s headache-inducing handheld digital-video aesthetic one notch, but remains firmly rooted in the amoral cop milieu Ayer understands so well (film bleu?). That pervasive grime overpowers any residual sense of what a Schwarzenegger picture might be now; this film could and would exist without him. Perhaps for that reason, the gray-streaked governator’s acting is arguably better than it’s ever been. He seems like a human being here, albeit an unfathomable one. (It’s the first picture since the ’70s documentary Pumping Iron where we actually see him lifting weights to maintain that still-hulking frame.) With his ska-band hairdo and his dye job and his stogies, he looks like he smells horrid. “Sweat, bad breath, everything!” as the hopelessly outmatched Terminator-fighter Kyle Reese said, once upon a time.
Miraculously, Sabotage packs surprises, plural, that its marketing campaign has somehow permitted to go unspoiled. So allow me spoil the most notable of them now: In a movie crowded with burly dudes sporting there-oughta-be-a-law facial hair, the most intriguing, fully realized characters? The women. By a lot.
Besides Enos’s nervy performance as that unstable, thrill-seeking narc, we have Olivia Williams — gentle Miss Cross from Rushmore! — all but unrecognizable in her butch haircut and questionable Georgia accent as the detective investigating the increasingly elaborate murders of Wharton’s agents on her turf. The first guy offed, Max Martini — one of the busiest cop-soldier That Guys in film and TV nowadays — gets locked in his mobile home and stranded on train tracks. It feels more like a 007 deathtrap than something that belongs in Ayer’s grim world. Williams’s Detective Caroline Brentwood — no badass nickname for her, sadly, as she’s just a local cop — is tough, she’s capable, she’s horny. She’s the only person we can possibly root for. She is, in other words, an action hero.
Also, she’s got her hands full. Who’s hunting these elite cops? Who could be fearsome enough to make them afraid? How could the DEA ever keep an agent with a history as tragic and horrible as Wharton’s (it’s eventually revealed) in the field in the first place?
The writing’s not up to the direction or performances. The screenplay — credited to Ayer and Skip Woods, who should have been barred from ever going near a keyboard again for having written Swordfish, A Good Day to Die Hard, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine — is long on intrigue but short on answers. We many never know which guy wrote the line, “We just had to go fingering the Devil’s pussy!” which translates roughly into human-ese as “We should not have pressed our luck.” Tense action scenes contain flashbacks to other tense action scenes. That’s something new. Trying to connect the windswept dots of its tangled whodunnit plot afterward, one is reminded of that story from the set of The Big Sleep, wherein director Howard Hawks and screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett asked Raymond Chandler, whose novel they were adapting, who murdered the limo driver — and even Chandler didn’t know.
It’s never boring, though, which is curious, given the slack pacing of the picture’s first act. Ayer is smart enough to put the onetime Terminator (and He’ll Be Back, in next year’s sequel/reboot/whatever, somehow) on the defensive from the start: His squad of scuzzy drug cops is suspected of stealing $10 million during that movie-opening raid, so he’s confined to desk duty, wearing a bad suit and surrounded by colleagues who think he took the money. “Look at you, vit your 48 percent body fat!” he explodes at one of them, hilariously, which is as closes as this movie gets to a one-liner.
When the internal affairs investigation is dropped for reasons never explained, there follows an interlude that finds the team — who has been hanging out in their clubhouse with a Ronald Reagan-as-Rambo poster on the wall playing PlayStation for six months — re-sharpening their atrophied gun-fighting skills. One has to find the tactical ins-and-outs of gun-fighting cool to stay awake through all of this, but the horrible truth about humanity is that many of us do. Eventually it turns out that a drug cartel has marked them for death, but the cartel seems to be in no particular hurry.
Ayer is good with action; his close-quarters shoot-outs are frightening and brutal, but the geography remains clear. There’s plenty of CGI blood to augment the squib-blood, but it’s far removed from the meticulous, painterly spatter patterns of 300: Rise of an Empire. The most upsetting scenes of violence are those visited upon Wharton’s captured wife and son, shot in shaky handheld video in a sickly low-light green. In these brief moments, Sabotage tiptoes to the edge of torture-porn genre that always seemed to me, at least, infinitely more sadistic and loathsome than the high-body-count cartoons of Schwarzenegger’s heyday. You feel ashamed, just briefly, for enjoying the balance of the bloodletting so much. There are mountains of evidence that police departments around the country are increasingly using “dynamic entry” SWAT raids like the ones so lovingly depicted in this movie in situations that don’t begin to warrant that level of force. What, then, are we to make of the fact that Schwarzenegger has been promoting the movie with special advance screenings for law enforcement officers — especially in light of the fact that the DEA agents depicted here range from ethically compromised to straight-up amoral?
A year ago, The Last Stand found the Last Action Hero embracing age and reluctance, putting him at the center of an essentially warm-hearted, High Noon-style western. In its crazypants coda, Sabotage becomes a western, too, albeit of the more nihilistic Sam Peckinpah variety. Schwarzenegger isn’t trying to win us over in this movie. He’s a bad guy using bad guys to help him get rid of some worse guys. “I’m not like you,” he tells one of them, before shooting the bastard in the head. But we can tell he doesn’t really believe it.