To put it bluntly, Arnold Schwarzenegger's post-politics comeback has been one Predator-sized flop. What has he really accomplished other than trampling over his former glory as an iconic action hero? Not even joining the equally grizzled stars of The Expendables could help, and the solo films he's starred in have been pretty embarrassing. Bet you already forgot Escape Plan and that was barely six months ago. What Arnold needed, and quite badly, was to stop trading on his past (uh oh Terminator fans) and be a different type of bad ass. Fortunately, that's when End of Watch director David Ayer came calling with Sabotage, simply Schwarzenegger's best film in years.
Ayer has made a living off gritty cop thrillers, usually focusing on corruption and brotherhood, and Sabotage is no different. It allows for Schwarzenegger to be the leader of a group that aren't just a bunch of muscle-bound stereotypes, but characters with some pretty serious flaws. He plays John "Breacher" Wharton, the head gorilla in a special DEA unit full of rowdy hair-trigger animals. Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, Joe Manganiello, Max Martini, Sam Worthington, and Kevin Vance make up his rough 'n tumble squad who specialize in vulgarity and gunning down drug cartels. During one particularly bloody raid, Breacher's unit makes away with a cool $10M in cash, quite literally flushing it down the toilet. But when they come back to claim it, the money is nowhere to be found. All they've got to show for the theft is the federal government breathing down their necks and a lengthy suspension.
Well, they do get one more thing: dead. Pretty soon after reforming, members of the team start dropping like flies. Breacher calls it an "occupational hazard" but when guys are having their entire homes plowed under by trains, or getting gutted like a fish and nailed to the ceiling, it's clear somebody is sending a message. Already on edge, the unit begins to turn on one another as they try to sort out who the bad guys are and if there's a traitor in their close-knit family. Olivia Williams plays a dogged federal agent assigned to the case, and when she's not making off-color jokes with her partner (Harold Perrineau) she's trying to figure out what Breacher's team is hiding.
Ayer piles up red herrings quicker than the bullets and bodies stack up, and for the most part the mystery remains at barrel's length, throughout. You might be surprised to learn the story is based on an Agatha Christie novel, And Then There Were None, and it walks the line between whodunit and brutal action flick pretty well until the plot starts to unravel towards the end. While the less said about it the better, there's a major twist surrounding a character's deeply personal motivation that casts everything in a new light. It also serves to needlessly burden a film that wasn't built on the sturdiest of legs, and we see in the rushed shoot-out finale an attempt to just wrap things up neatly. Stacks of dismembered and splattered bodies, along with a healthy amount of torture, should fend off anyone with a nervous stomach. Safe to say this is the most violent film Schwarzenegger has ever been a part of, although it's not nearly as torturous as Jingle All the Way.
Mainly it's good to see Schwarzenegger as an authoritative, deeply intelligent and intimidating character; playing his age without making light of it. He gets a lot of help from a great supporting cast, better than a movie like this would normally bother to assemble. Enos is deadly as a squirrelly, drug-addicted member of Breacher's team who may be more trouble than her ass-kicking and smart mouth are worth. The mark of a great director is getting the best out of his actors, and Ayer has invigorated Schwarzenegger in a way we haven't seen in a long time. Hopefully we see him take on more films like Sabotage rather than trying to recreate the past.