Friday, March 28, 2014

In Theaters: SABOTAGE (2014)

(US - 2014)

Directed by David Ayer.  Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer.  Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Terrence Howard, Harold Perrineau, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Max Martini, Martin Donovan, Troy Garity, Maurice Compte, Kevin Vance, Michael Monks, Gary Grubbs, Mark Schlegel. (R, 109 mins)

Arnold Schwarzenegger's return to movies after a decade in politics has largely found the action icon in self-deprecation mode, poking fun at his age in the sadly neglected THE LAST STAND and cutting loose while Sylvester Stallone played his straight man in ESCAPE PLAN.  Those two films, along with his appearances in the EXPENDABLES outings, showed a fully self-aware Schwarzenegger who seemed to be happy just making formula action movies again. Unfortunately, if the word "expendables" isn't in the title, formula action movies with '80s action stars aren't doing very well in the 2010s, so Schwarzenegger tries something different with SABOTAGE, teaming with writer/director David Ayer, who's made a name for himself with tough, gritty L.A. cop thrillers--he scripted the great TRAINING DAY (2001) and the underrated DARK BLUE (2002), directed the frequently absurd STREET KINGS (2008), and both wrote and directed END OF WATCH (2012). Ayer's had some stumbles--his 2006 directing debut HARSH TIMES features what's thus far the only bad Christian Bale performance--but the idea of collaborating with Schwarzenegger had some interesting potential. Unfortunately, SABOTAGE is an almost total bust with only the hints of a better film occasionally peaking through the rubble.  I like the idea of an aged Schwarzenegger exploring the dark side of a character who's spent his life in law enforcement and has seen far too much horrible shit, and that comes through in a powerfully effective closing shot that strongly suggests Ayer might've been going for something meaningful, but until then, SABOTAGE is filled with tired cliches, obnoxiously cartoonish heroes, and illogical plotting.  It seems torn between being a Schwarzenegger vehicle and an Ayer film, clumsily reaching a happy medium that comes off as an awkward, compromised attempt at the most mediocre of both worlds.

Schwarzenegger is John "Breacher" Wharton, a veteran Atlanta-based DEA badass who runs a crew of hardcore, hypermacho, undercover dude-bros who play by their own rules and look like the types of guys who go to metal shows just to beat the shit out of people in the mosh pit.  They fuckin' live on the edge 24/7, motherfucker. They fuckin' work hard and they fuckin' play harder.  They make SONS OF ANARCHY look like fuckin' pussies and they've always got each others' backs, bro, because that's all fuckin' matters in this world. It's not just a fuckin' job...they fuckin' live it, man.  It's what they fuckin' do. They fuckin' crush fuckin' cartels, they fuckin' get shit done, and they fuckin' answer to fuckin' no one.  Then they fuckin' go to fuckin' titty bars and they fuckin' make it rain, slammin' fuckin' shots, fuckin' smashin' bottles, and kickin' the fuckin' shit outta some fuckin' pussy bouncers, just because they fuckin' can. They're the fuckin' best at what they do.  They got fuckin' names like Breacher, Monster (Sam Worthington), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Pyro (Max Martini), Tripod (Kevin Vance), and Smoke (Mark Schlegel).  But the fuckin' sickest of all is Monster's old lady Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who's like, just totally fuckin' off the chain, bro.

"Get up, come on, get down with the sickness!"
Breacher's still getting over his wife and son being murdered by a Guatemalan cartel boss when he and his crew orchestrate a $10 million heist of drug money to set themselves up for life.  The money goes missing and the Feds are on to them, but after laying low for six months, they get nothing and have no choice but to send Breacher and his team back in the field.  Shortly after, members of the crew start getting offed one by one in assorted gruesome ways that mimic the revenge tactics of the cartel:  one is smashed to pieces by a train, another is disemboweled, gutted, and nailed to the ceiling.  Hard-nosed Atlanta homicide detective Brentwood (Olivia Williams) and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau) are in charge of the investigation and get no cooperation from the crew (who, naturally, want to fuckin' deal with this in their own fuckin' way, telling Brentwood--what else--"Welcome to our world"), though a reluctant Breacher slowly begins to warm up to her.  As the body count rises and a drug raid reveals they aren't being targeted, Breacher and the team lose trust in one another with the pending exposure of their corruption and the increasing likelihood that the killer is one of their fuckin' own.

Ayer doesn't shy away from graphically gory carnage, making SABOTAGE an unusually grim Schwarzenegger film.  But Ayer and co-writer/screenwriting pariah Skip Woods (A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD) never really establish a consistency between a brutal DEA thriller and an Arnold actioner. Schwarzenegger seems up to the challenge of playing a morally-conflicted, burned-out DEA field op whose years on the job mixed with unspeakable tragedy have prompted him to go rogue, but Breacher and his colleagues are some of the most absurdly posturing, gratingly repulsive heroes to hit screens in ages.  They act like the kind of roid-raging, fart-obsessed Beavis & Butt-heads who go to public places just to yell, start fights and break shit. They're the kind of no-rules renegades who leave a trail of dead bodies and just strut away from the scene of a meth-stronghold massacre, telling the cops "Cleanup, aisle 3."  It's hard to care about Monster and Lizzy's imploding marriage, since it's obvious these two sacks of shit were made for each other. Enos is a fine actress, but she's completely over-the-top here, and not in a good way (see Eva Green in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE). You can tell Ayer handled the writing in the scenes with Williams and Perrineau, because their rapport and ribbing with one another expertly conveys the kind of lived-in comfort and trust of two veteran cops who've worked together for some time.  The scenes with these two are far more interesting than anything involving Breacher and his crew of goonish idiots (Williams also gets the film's best line, telling a posturing Grinder "I hate to interrupt your bro-down, but..."). I also liked some amusing asides here and there, like Breacher being under constant surveillance during his suspension, bringing Pop Tarts to the Feds parked outside his house and sharing his Netflix DVDs with them.

As an actor, Schwarzenegger has overcome the obstacle of his thick Austrian accent with his larger-than-life screen presence and sheer charisma--when he plays a Texas sheriff in RAW DEAL or a US Special Forces vet in COMMANDO or a big-city cop or even a KINDERGARTEN COP, he's Arnold and you just roll with it, no matter how inherently absurd his casting may be.  That's why he's awesome.  But with SABOTAGE, it's the first time it feels like Schwarzenegger is out of place.  Maybe it's the conflicted script, maybe it's the ill-fitting suits he wears in the DEA offices, or maybe it's his age, but for whatever reason, it's hard to buy the Breacher that he's selling here.  He doesn't look comfortable in the action scenes, and while it's commendable that he isn't going full Seagal and checking out entirely while his stuntman does the heavy lifting, Arnold just doesn't move like he used to.  He looks oddly slumped when he's carrying a shotgun and barging through doors.  It's perfectly understandable--no matter how great of shape he's in, he's still 66 years old and it's not 1990 anymore.  There's no mention made of his character's age, but maybe it would've been smart to work it in, especially given the implications of the closing scene.  But as it is, for the first time since his post-Governator comeback, he actually comes across as too old for this shit.  Perhaps if SABOTAGE were as relatively lighthearted as THE LAST STAND or ESCAPE PLAN, the miscasting wouldn't come off as so glaring.  But that again speaks to how SABOTAGE is constantly working at cross purposes.  It's Schwarzenegger taking on dark, serious material, but it's at least a decade too late, and the filmmakers feel too much of an obligation to make it an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, and as a result, it's a complete mess that unfortunately feels like it should've gone straight to DVD.  Ultimately, the basic center of the film--the mystery of who's offing the crew and why--doesn't really hold up to any serious scrutiny.  Also, SABOTAGE can't even follow the advice of its own one-sheet ("Leave no loose ends"):  what was the point of introducing Troy Garity's bitter, whistleblowing Fed only to drop him completely after two scenes? And if Breacher's crew followed their directive to blow up all the money in their initial raid, then how did the DEA suits know $10 million was missing?  That's got "Skip Woods" written all over it.

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