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Entries in Sabotage [2014] (1)

Friday
Mar282014

Sabotage (2014)

Pike, Revisited

Arnold Schwarzenegger's career is finally growing up. Sure, from the outside looking in, his latest film, Sabotage, is just another grasp at movie-star relevance in a millennial culture that mostly knows him for being an ex-governor and the source of catch phrases that were awesome a quarter-century ago. But like the rest of his post-politics filmography, there's something different about co-writer/director David Ayer's DEA task-force actioner that demands our attention. Schwarzenegger is, indeed, back, and tackling less bone-crunching material than his fanbase might appreciate. This may explain why neither The Last Stand nor The Escape Plan set the world on fire. But for people who love their movies bursting with surprises, Arnold 2.0 is a breath of fresh air.

The movie finds Schwarzenegger's John "Breacher" Wharton leading a team of super-cops on a raid of a drug lord's compound. After mowing down dozens of faceless bad guys, they skim millions of dollars off the top of the gargantuan payload they're supposed to recover for the government. Hours later, when they return to the scene of the crime to pick up their cash, they discover that someone has ripped them off. They spend the next several months suspended, investigated, and falling apart as a team.

And what a team it is. Macho, insane, and vulgar to the point of ridiculousness, this crew of muscle-bound human weapons boasts names like "Monster" (Sam Worthington), "Sugar" (Terrence Howard), "Neck" (Josh Holloway), "Grinder" (Joe Manganiello), and...Lizzy (Mireille Enos). Yes, there's a woman in the gang--a great, big, dumb ol' girl. Okay, they never call her that, but given the film's attitude towards anything that doesn't wield a penis like a wrecking ball, I can only imagine what Lizzy's first day on the job was like. Not to worry: Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods let us know that she's "one of the guys" by making her even more of an unlikable, chauvinistic creep than her cohorts.

Don't get me wrong: I love Sabotage, but the first twenty minutes play out like a dare. There's so much misogyny, poorly staged gunplay, and fumbling around for a point that I began to wonder if I'd get some kind of prize for sitting through the whole thing.

Then the murders began, and I was hooked.

Following some back-room deals in Washington, Breacher and his team are granted permission to re-activate and once again save the world from drugs. Cue the obligatory strip club scene in which the rowdy assholes (sorry, "protagonists") get hammered and belligerent, and are asked to leave. Hours later, one of them wakes up in his RV, which has been placed squarely in the path of an oncoming train. This poor, splattered soul is but the first of Breacher's team to meet a gruesome, Se7en-style fate, and one-by-one key members end up tortured and killed.

This is the first of three key instances where Sabotage pulls up stakes and switches genres. What began as a shoot-'em-up becomes a bloody, mismatched-partners thriller, as Breacher works with a local Georgia detective named Caroline (Olivia Williams) to stop the killer. Theories and motives pop up and are just as quickly dismissed, thanks to conflicting bits of evidence at each crime scene. The once invincible DEA task force finds itself paranoid, on the run, or holed up where (they think) no one can touch them.

The film's beauty lies in its mysteries: Who stole the money? Who's behind the killings? In a world where even heroes are easily corruptible villains, how can the audience root for anyone? Some people might figure out one or two of these, but I can practically guarantee the film's big, poetic twist will have even the most astute moviegoers feeling duped--in a good way. Like The Usual Suspects, Sabotage's final moments guarantee a re-watch to help grasp the weight of all the unfortunate, unintended consequences inspired by one fateful, inciting incident.*

And thanks to Ayers' direction and Bruce McCleery's cinematography, Sabotage is an engrossing film to look at. The problematic setup scenes aside, once the sinister plot sets in and we fall into full-on horror territory, the movie pops with elaborate, practical gore effects, breathtaking stunt work, and some truly artful compositions that make this project special. Notice the shot where Caroline takes a shocked drag off a cigarette while covered in blood, after having made a sudden, sickening discovery. I was reminded instantly of the skinless, suited Frank Cotton in Clive Barker's Hellraiser. The filmmakers turn a throw-away image into a gallery-worthy piece of painterly perfection.

There are also real stakes to the way Ayers and company portray "action" here. Unlike most climactic, city-street car chases, for example, where drivers and pedestrians have the wherewithal to swerve or jump out of the way of speeding, gun-toting maniacs, Sabotage racks up the collateral damage, using innocents as roadblocks, shields, and just plain scenic hamburger.

The film has been understandably criticized for being nasty, mean-spirited, and decidedly anti-woman. I understand how people weaned on "classic" Schwarzenegger might be turned off by a non-cartoonish, practically quip-free action film, headlined by someone who defined the genre. But one of the reasons Sabotage works so well is that it doesn't care about the audience's comfort level. It's a story of compromised morality, revenge, betrayal, ruthlessness, despair--and the indomitability of the human spirit. The sticky part is that some human spirits are indomitable in service of singular, dark goals--which doesn't exactly scream "casual, popcorn-chomping entertainment".

Thank God for that. In the closing scenes, Schwarzenegger emerges as a modern-day successor to The Wild Bunch's Pike Bishop: an introspective man's man facing down his twilight years with a band of loyal savages. That Breacher's particular gang tears itself apart is a sad commentary on greed and suspicion, but none of that matters in the end. As Sabotage draws to its spectacular, bloody close, we're left with a striking image of a cinematic icon who's finally found a role that is discussion-worthy, and not just quote-worthy.

*Of course, there's no way to prove that the screenplay's specific successes and failures can be directly ascribed to Ayer and Woods, respectively. But one wrote Training Day and End of Watch. The other is partially responsible for The A-Team, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and A Good Day to Die Hard.