Sabotage (2014) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use
Running Time: 109 min.

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Martin Donovan, Kevin Vance, Matt Schiegel
Director: David Ayer
Screenplay: Skip Woods, David Ayer

Review published March 30, 2014

Arnold Schwarzenegger (Escape Plan, The Last Stand) stars as John Wharton, aka 'Breacher', head of a squad of covert DEA agents based in Atlanta, who have decided to snatch about $10 million in cash recovered from a huge drug bust of a major Mexican cartel.  However, when the squad goes to collect their stash, they discover it's all mysteriously disappeared, and now the Feds want them to cough up what they think they stole.  After being interrogated for six months, they're cleared back for duty, only to find their skills have deteriorated and they've grown distrustful of one another in the interim.  Things get especially testy when members of the squad begin getting killed in the most viciously violent ways imaginable, leading them to wonder if they stand a chance against one of the most powerful cartels in the world, while the local homicide detectives begin digging a little close to their secrets as they investigate the series of grisly murders in their midst.

Sabotage is co-written and directed by David Ayer (Street Kings), who has thus far specialized in action flicks featuring lots of law enforcement procedurals that dabble into heavy doses of grisly and violent action.  Most of his movies are shot with an unsteady, digital camera to give the viewers the feeling like they're there in the action, but unlike his previous effort, End of Watch, the direction isn't nearly as gripping or realistic in this muddled, choppy effort. Here, he employs a few gimmicky shots that might have seemed cool in theory, but they're awkward in execution, such as mini-cameras placed on the barrels of guns.  Just because you can, David, doesn't mean you should.

While Ayer does a decent enough job establishing that these men (and woman) have known each other a long time, there's a lack of chemistry (and inability to adequately improvise) among the actors that seems out of place for how tight-knit they're supposed to be.  Unlike say, similarly plotted films like SWAT and The Usual Suspects, which featured oodles of cast camaraderie, the repartee in Sabotage feels forced, partially because these thespians are cast more for their menacing brawn than their charisma. Fiery scene-stealer Mireille Enos (Gangster Squad, World War Z), as the only female of the group, is perhaps the only one that really stands out from the pack to give us something more than a generic wisecracking cop.  This repartee goes to both sides of the law, as Olivia Williams (The Last Days on Mars, Anna Karenina), in a refreshingly adroit performance as a Southern cop named Brentwood, has a lot of interplay with her partner that sounds like funnier banter than it is.  Her flirtatious relationship with Breacher lacks sizzle, which is one of the other liabilities.

The violence is perhaps the only aspect in which Sabotage will be remembered, as this is a very bloody film, with lots of violence and a few scenes showcasing the gory aftermath of a killing.  The film also has an undercurrent of ugliness to it, intentional to a certain extent, with more shots and dialogue about human waste than is typical for a law enforcement thriller.  Perhaps the one somewhat unique angle is that our protagonists are actually bad guys, a gang of thugs who easily fall into corruption, usurping the law into their own hands, and showing contempt and disgrace for people around them.  Although there is 'honor among thieves', when things fall apart and they suspect a dishonor has been committed, this close-knit group ends up fending for themselves in a hurry.

Ayer's script, co-written by A Good Day to Die Hard's Skip Woods, isn't as tight, and though there are some twists thrown in late in the story, they're not particularly unexpected.  There are quite a few flashbacks to Breacher's past, wherein he lost his wife and son in a vicious kidnapping and torture scenario, filmed for his perusal, at the hands of a drug cartel he had been trying to take down -- the very one he thinks is out to dismantle his crew one by one.  You can pretty much guess that this side story gets twisted into the main one before the film wraps up.

Sabotage probably would have played better as a 10-episode made-for-HBO series than it does as a two-hour feature, as then we might have gotten to know the characters enough to actually give a rip when they end up in harm's way.  It also would have been better for pacing, as Ayer's film appears to make a few jumps in story without proper explanation (I suspect a reel's worth of intended footage hit the proverbial cutting room floor).  As it stands, it is occasionally engaging, but far too uneven and not consistently enthralling enough to recommend to anyone not a huge fan of the ensemble cast.

Qwipster's rating:

2014 Vince Leo