In the Drug Enforcement Administration of 'Sabotage,' there's an elite task force comprised of douchebags, jackasses, bullies and morally reprehensible goons. They're thrown the tough assignments; When a drug cartel kingpin needs to be brought to justice, John Breacher (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his crew of hot-tempered, maladjusted soldiers storm his suburban fortress, pop two in his head, and beeline to the nearest dive bar for one-dollar Budweisers. When an unknown assailant starts picking them off one-by-one, it's hard to feel too bad for the band of brosefs.
Writer-director David Ayer is the king of the “bad cop” genre, tweaking his formula ever so slightly for movies like 'Training Day,' 'Harsh Crimes,' 'Street Kings,' and 'End of Watch.' With 'Sabotage,' Ayer implodes his gritty vision of corrupt do-gooders with aggressive, action-laden intrigue, landing somewhere between Schwarzenegger's 'Commando' and an underground dog fight. It's a plot-heavy turn for Ayer, who mixes his violent verisimilitude with the beats of an Agatha Christie novel. Imagine 'Clue,' but everyone is awful. 'Sabotage' is an intentionally abrasive film, an occasional fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants set piece or honest admission from a brute suspect glimmers through the dour ideology, saving it from straight up ugliness.
The revelation of 'Sabotage' is that Ayer knows how to use 21st century Schwarzenegger. He's the keystone, silent and gruff. His Breacher is a springboard for the ensemble's garish personalities (who you can't imagine surviving each other's company for long enough to pull of any mission). We pick up with the Atlanta-based squad amidst a raid, executed with Seal Team Six finesse. Huddled together like a 360-degree battalion, Breacher, Monster (Sam Worthington), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Neck (Josh Holloway), Pyro (Max Martini), Tripod (Kevin Vance), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), and Smoke (Mark Schlegel) step from room to room, clearing Mexican machine gunners while their undercover agent, Lizzy (Mireille Enos), the group's lone female, takes down the bigwigs from the inside out. The clashing voices banter and joke, cuss and command, butt heads even in the thick of a bust. Breacher plays their cigar-chomping Dad, wise and a little full of bullpoo.
By shootout's end, Breacher and Co. secure the cartel's $200 million stash, $10 million of which they swipe. That covert heist goes perfectly. It's only when they return for the hidden money that they find themselves swindled... and under investigation by Internal Affairs. Which member of the Little Rascals stole the bounty? The team finds itself disbanded before any discovery can be made.
Six months and zero leads later, Breacher's task force is reinstated, but the celebratory beer-guzzling and stripper-groping is cut short by the untimely demise of one of their own. When an investigation by two FBI agents (Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau) deems the death a murder, everyone becomes a suspect, the missing $10 million considered the perfect motivation.
Ayer shades his weathered star with ghosts of the past, the kidnapping, torture, and execution of his wife and son at the hands of the Mexican cartel — a memory he constantly relives through the magic of Quicktime video. 'Sabotage' touts a rare, vulnerable performance by Schwarzenegger. It's melodramatic, but livelier than anything Ayer's script delivers as the mystery slowly fizzles out.
With an all-consuming plot, Ayer is forced to dilute his typically strong character work with red herrings and action-filled sidestepping. It's a movie steeped in sleuthing where the sleuthing never pans out. At a certain point, it becomes easier for Ayer to pull back the curtain and blindside us with the “ah ha!” moments. The cast makes this cheap form of detective fiction easier to stomach. While Gender Studies majors will melt in their seats over the blatant, unpunished misogyny flowing through the veins of each character (Enos' included), Worthington prevails as a sympathetic alternative. Don't judge his 'Avatar' past or heinous goatee — compassionate, heroic, and deadly, Worthington adds gravitas to the machismo in a way Schwarzenegger's physicality has never done. Williams is equally ferocious and human, a refreshing voice of reason trudging through a swamp of growling antiheroes. She's coarse and wry in her own way (Williams drops a sexting reference that earns legit laughs) while slipping in to the role of 'Sabotage's' Miss Marple. Enos counters with one of the most unhinged female performances in recent years, but it feels like more of the same when drowned in the film's routine, 100 decibel screamfests. None of these characters penetrate their lives or emotional states beyond the job. When Manganiello reveals he's an Iraq vet, that should mean more than why he's adept with an SMG.
If 'Sabotage' could sever the action from the character and overarching mystery, it would be plain ol' Schwarzenegger fun. A scene where the task force beats the FBI on its own lead explodes with an impromptu takedown, Ayer orchestrating the tactical madness like he's operating under military protocol. He maximizes kinetic energy by popping to the right shots at the right time, from a low wide as the synchronized pack blasts their way through a corridor, or a tiny camera placed on the barrel of a handgun, centered squarely on the eyes of the shooter as he jumps for cover.
A whirlwind car chase towards the end of the film continues the bloody, adrenaline-infused mayhem. Ayer lays into his R rating with tremendous force; when a bullet hits and we feel it. And ammunition is rip-roaring as cars speed down the Atlanta freeway, both the chased and the chaser showing a total disregard for civilians. That's Ayer's mentality too. There are no heroes in 'Sabotage.' It's not the Schwarzenegger vehicle that we know. The audience is both a spectator and a casualty of Ayer's weaponized morality play. If it burns you, as many of Ayer's less justified decisions will, tough shit. The writer-director goes takes no prisoners with a hulking Hollywood hero as his frontman. That's admirable.
'Sabotage' opens in theaters on March 28.
Matt Patches is a writer and reporter whose work has been featured on New York Magazine’s Vulture, Time Out New York, Film.com, and Hollywood.com. He is the host of the pop culture podcast Fighting in the War Room.