Listen all y’all, SABOTAGE is a great vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger right now. It’s a good mix of what you expect from him and what you don’t. It’s a movie that benefits from his Huge Movie Star presence. He can just walk in and the legendary badass backstory of his character, DEA squad leader John “Breacher” Wharton, manifests physically before our eyes. He can strut and bark commands and joke and you fully believe that his unruly team of trained killers – even big Joe Manganiello, who towers over him – respect, fear, and look up to him like he’s their dad.
I think this here is the perfect approach to Old Man Arnold: not making self-deprecating jokes like in the okay THE LAST STAND, but just being Arnold while proudly rocking a thick stripe of white hair around the edges. Yeah, I’m 66, who the fuck cares? I’m Arnold. Are you gonna be Arnold when you get to be my age?
On one hand, his name is John, just like such previous Schwarzenegger characters as John Matrix, Detective John Kimble, John G. Nicolay, U.S. Marshal John “The Eraser” Kruger, John Conan and John Mr. Freeze. On the other hand, he has a tattoo of a skull wearing a top hat on his neck. Most of his characters only have this on their ass.
Breacher is a traditional Arnold character in that he’s the best there is, a serious professional with a sense of gallows humor. But he’s different in that he’s not a hero. I’m sure he was once, but he changed for good after a cartel tortured his wife and son to death and mailed them back to him a piece at a time. He deals with the drama in a pretty creepy way: sitting in the dark smoking cigars and watching the video of the whole ordeal. Thinking about revenge, we imagine.
[By the way, I wonder how many envelopes you open before you figure out they’re all gonna be fingers and toes? Did they put fake return addresses on there to trick him? That’s just mean.]
In a flashback we learn about the time Breacher went to Mexico looking for the guy that did it. He never found the motherfucker, so who is the dead guy on the floor in the flophouse where he’s staying? We never find out. Heh. I’m sure there’s a good story there.
So now he’s disillusioned as hell and the story begins with his team raiding a cartel leader’s mansion and trying to sneak off with $10 million of his cash. The money disappears somehow, but they get lucky and the internal investigation goes nowhere, and they seem to be back to square one… except then they start getting horribly murdered one-by-one. Like, fucked up beyond-slasher-movie types of murders. Somebody’s not happy with them. I know what you did last drug raid.
At least one of the posters says it’s “from the writer of TRAINING DAY and the director of END OF WATCH.” Both are David Ayer, who is apparently still enamored of dirty cop anti-heroes. He gives the team plenty of macho banter and rowdy behavior in their filthy clubhouse (with Ronald Reagan/Rambo mashup poster on the wall – interpret how you will), their dangerous live-ammo training course or their favorite strip club, where the strippers seem to hate them and the security has every reason to.
Schwarzenegger’s fellow James Cameron lead Sam Worthington (who has previously worked with Schwarzenegger’s CGI double in TERMINATOR SALVATION) would be the problem child of the group if not for his crazy drug addict wife Lizzie (Mireille Enos). She’s a badass woman who holds her own in this boys club, forced to go in undercover as a ho but happy to toss off her heels, throw on her armour and get in on the action. She’s also the type of cop who, when she finds jugs of liquid meth during a bust, giggles, busts one open and takes a drink. She kinda steals the movie.
[Unimportant note: I wondered if she was somehow related to John Enos, an obscure actor who was in David DeFalco’s POINT DOOM and Dolph’s MISSIONARY MAN. Sure enough, IMDb says she is “a distant cousin.” She’s also married to Cameron from FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF.]
Of course the team falls apart, but for a while they have fun together, and they have a good chemistry. In the opening raid there are so many offscreen quips it reminded me of ON DEADLY GROUND’s infamous ADR.
It’s a good ensemble. You also got REDBELT’s Max Martini on the team, MATRIX 2-3’s Harold Perrineau, IRON MAN PART 1 ONLY’s Terrence Howard, some guy from Lost, etc. RUSHMORE’s Olivia Williams plays the investigating officer as if channeling Annette Bening. Of course she’s 20 years younger than Schwarzenegger and the movie insists on hooking them up, but at least she’s an actress allowed to have wrinkles under her eyes, and it’s treated as her conquest, not his. The spontaneous fling of an in-control, liberated woman.
Every review I’ve seen praises the movie’s alleged sleaziness. I think that may be a little overhyped, nobody is gonna by shocked by anything here, but it definitely has an enjoyable rowdiness that sets it apart. Hats off to co-writer Skip Woods (THURSDAY, SWORDFISH, HITMAN, A GOOD DAY TO DIE HARD) because THE A-TEAM and WOLVERINE are no longer vying for the tile of best movie he’s had his name on. I don’t know if that means he’s getting better or that Ayer ditched everything he wrote. Whoever wrote it this seems like David Ayer bluster without the lecture and with more awesome. Not long after the murder mystery gets stale it veers off in the kind of direction you sometimes wish an action movie would go, but never expect it actually will.
This has gotta be the best movie Schwarzenegger has done since at least TERMINATOR 3, possibly TRUE LIES (not counting his cameo in THE RUNDOWN). I know that’s not really saying much, but between this and ESCAPE PLAN he has plenty to be proud of in his post-political movie career, even though the box office didn’t notice. Congratulations, Governor, for re-establishing your relevance, artistically if not financially.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.