David Ayer’s “Sabotage” just might be an even grittier drama than his previous effort, 2012’s “End of Watch.” In terms of bloodletting, it is probably the most violent film of the year so far, and might even compete against any film released last year as well. Unfortunately, it’s tough to say whether or not the violence comes with a price: right from the opening sequence of “Sabotage”, the viewer is very much clued in that the team of DEA agents that the film follows are a rather questionable bunch of characters.
Transposed into the title card of the film, the viewer sees John Wharton’s wife being tortured by a drug cartel. Fast forward some time, and Wharton(Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his team are approaching a drug cartel mansion. They have an agent on the inside, but one that doesn’t seem to mind taking part in the consumption of illegal narcotics. When the team takes the house by storm, they take no prisoners, as convictions aren’t really what they are after.
What the agents are really after is the cartel’s money stash. And here is where things get a little complicated: the agents have a plan to skim 10 million off the top. They stash it down the drain pipe underneath the toilet, but when they return to retrieve it, the line has been cut and the money has vanished.
Of course, the higher-ups in the DEA aren’t too pleased about the missing money, so Wharton ends up being investigated, which freezes his team from doing anything else. But after six months pass, Washington decides not to waste any more time(or tax dollars) on the case, and John gets his badge and his gun back. His reinstatement comes just at the right time, too: his team members start turning up dead one after another, and it appears that they are being targeted by the cartel that they tried to rob.
“Sabotage” is proof that as long as Arnold Schwarzenegger steers clear of Sylvester Stallone, he can still be part of a decent motion picture. The film is a vast improvement from last year’s “Escape Plan.” It’s also a considerable departure from the more action-oriented(and more fun) “The Last Stand.” Olivia Williams makes her first big-screen appearance of 2014 playing an FBI agent, a role quite unlike her usual supporting efforts.
So how does Skip Woods, the screenwriter of such gems as “Swordfish” and “A Good Day to Die Hard”, do with “Sabotage”? Fortunately, the story moves along pretty fluidly, but the dialogue is reduced to tough-guy machismo most of the time. Even the lone female of John’s team(Mireille Enos) seems to enjoy disrespecting members of her own gender. Ayer also contributed a little to the screenplay, but neither he nor Woods could develop the appropriate hints to keep a revelation from completely coming out of left field towards the end of the film. The development is there strictly to move the film toward a conclusion, and that’s really all it feels like too. There appears to be no motivation for such a twist, which makes it feel somewhat tacked-on.
The big issue with “Sabotage” is that it feels like there are no real heroes. Perhaps the FBI agents are the real good guys, but the film isn’t really focused on them, and they show up nearly a third of the way through. Not only are John Wharton and his team of DEA agents somewhat morally bankrupt, they are just nasty people. While celebrating John’s reinstatement at a local strip club, they get nice and drunk. And after one of the men climbs up on the stage, they decide to beat up security when they are being asked to leave. Are these the kind of people we should root for?
“Sabotage” has blood, guts, and action all framed by a truly capable director. The only thing it doesn’t have is a way to engage its audience. How can one watch so much violence, and yet feel nothing?