SABOTAGE is a Mark Dacascos vehicle and it’s from 1996, so it’s pretty early in his career – a couple years after ONLY THE STRONG, a year after CRYING FREEMAN, same year as THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, a year before DRIVE. So, one of the first times he should’ve blown up.
This clunky and disposable b-movie isn’t half as good as any of those I just mentioned, but it has some good bits and an overqualified cast. It’s directed by Tibor Takács (THE GATE, MANSQUITO, ROCKY MOUNTAIN CHRISTMAS) and written by Rick Filon (KICKBOXER 5: THE REDEMPTION, also starring Dacascos) and Michael Stokes (IRON EAGLE ON THE ATTACK, Paw Patrol). Dacascos stars as Michael Bishop, a bodyguard who used to be an elite special ops super military dude, which of course means it starts with a traumatic war experience prologue. But this was the ‘90s so it’s in Bosnia instead of Afghanistan.
While Bishop is creeping up on a house where terrorists have a bunch of hostages hanging upside down, suddenly he sees another guy in ski mask and tactical gear beating him to it. He calls in to the general or whatever, Tollander (Graham Greene one year after DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE), who swears it’s not his guy. Bishop confronts the other operative, who unmasks and is a guy he knows named Sherwood (Tony Todd after CANDYMAN 2: FAREWELL TO THE FLESH, before THE ROCK), who shoots the hostages and Bishop.
Three years later in Baltimore, Bishop gets screwed over by Sherman again, though he doesn’t realize it’s him. Bishop is working security for a billionaire arms dealer who Sherman snipes as he’s exiting his private jet. Bishop identifies the shots as coming from the roof of a far away building, runs toward it and into traffic, leaps onto the back of a moving truck to get a ride to it, climbs up the fire escape and gets there miraculously fast, but not in time.
Enter 29-year-old Canadian TV actress Carrie-Ann Moss as Louise Castle. It’s the first time I’ve seen a pre-THE-MATRIX Moss role, and in her first scene she’s throwing a birthday party for her young daughter (Sarah Rosen Fruitman, THE SWEET HEREAFTER), so I thought “oh damn, she’s just playing a mom in this one.” Nope, she’s a mom and the FBI special agent investigating the assassination. When she gets there the lead detective on the scene (James Loxley) says, “I’m a little busy now, honey” and argues about jurisdiction, so she asks him to get her a coffee. When he refuses she says, “Then you’re of no use to me whatsoever.” A great introduction.
Bishop’s handler and mentor is a flirtatious gay chess lover and miniature model builder in a wheelchair named Professor Follenfant (John Neville, “Hieronymus Karl Frederick Baron von Munchausen,” THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, “Waiter,” DANGEROUS MINDS). He has a buff, long-haired manservant with an ankh necklace named Marco who brings him drinks, and both the character and actor appear to be having a good time. He seems to take Bishop’s losing a client very lightly. They’re able to laugh about it. Good atittude, I guess?
Sherwood goes around with other nefarious guys doing other assassinations, there’s investigation, corruption, betrayal, Castle has to learn to trust Bishop and lie to the bosses to reluctantly team with him even though he’s doing illegal things like breaking into an ATM machine to get security camera footage to identify the shooter. At one point he shames her about working for bad people, and she scolds him about how hard it is to be a single mother. In one of her scenes with her daughter they’re picking out a video to watch and the options include SNOW WHITE and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, but not the Disney ones, it looks like it’s those knock off fairy tale cartoons you see at dollar stores. The struggle is real.
Castle’s daughter ends up in danger, you know the drill. Sadly it’s mostly gun related action, with the occasional rolling car, and a couple scenes where Dacascos blesses us with his fighting. He gets attacked in his hotel room and bounces off the bed, a technique that will later be improved upon in DRIVE. I also enjoyed when a chase/shootout scene was just scored by a drummer rocking out (music by Guy Zerafa, GLADIATOR COP, REPLICANT). And there’s a cool part where they escape a bomb by plugging in an explosive light bulb, tipping a refrigerator over it, igniting it to blow a hole in the floor and then climbing out through the crawlspace just in time.
Believe it or not this was not filmed in the United States, but in Ontario. There are subtle clues to this such as the scene where a shootout endangers a group of kids playing street hockey and then shortly after that the action moves into an ice rink where actual hockey is happening.
Hockey is a sport known to exist in the United States, and it continues to grow, but even today there has never been two hockeys almost in a row. Statistically impossible.
Anyway, you know that thing where the hero comes face to face with a bad guy but then a bus or train goes by between them and once it’s passed the bad guy has disappeared like a ghost? Sherwood pulls one of those, only it’s not a bus going by, it’s a zamboni driven by a dead guy.
Since Tony Todd isn’t about to have a martial arts duel with Mark Dacascos, the finale has (SPOILER) Bishop killing Sherwood with a dose of his own medicine: a sniper rifle so powerful Bishop has to nail the tripod to the top of a car before he fires it. We don’t even see the look on Sherwood’s face when he gets it, but it’s still cool because of the chunky brain splatter on the windshield interior. He doesn’t get to say some parting words of evil, he’s just sitting there in his car not expecting it. Fittingly unglamorous.
One spoiler note about Graham Greene’s character. In the opening scene in Bosnia he’s overseeing a touchy hostage situation and casually puts on lip balm. I thought that was one of those funny actorly touches I get a kick out of – my character cares deeply about lip moisture – but later Bishop figures out he’s crooked because a container of lip balm is found at a crime scene. The lesson is if you want to get away with being a corrupt CIA guy or whatever you gotta fly under the radar. You can’t have a trademark. You can’t be The Lip Balm Guy. And don’t whine about it either. You chose this life.
To me the best part of SABOTAGE is seeing Moss early in her career. She’d done Models Inc. and a bunch of other TV but as far as I can tell the only previous movie where she was a major character was one called THE SOFT KILL (1994). She did a full season of F/X: The Series around this time, so maybe that pushed her to another level. But it’s just cool that a mere three years later she was entering the matrix. By that point she’d have much improved line delivery and running style, but here she’s already got great presence and does get to be a tough lady, though in a much more normal way where she’s part of The System. You gotta work your way up to being motherfuckin Trinity.
It’s kind of funny that her big pre-THE MATRIX movie includes chintzy looking but honestly kind of cool shots following animated speeding bullets on the way to their targets. It’s not bullet time, and it’s not new, but it seems like it might be in a similar spirit of “things we can do in action movies now because we have computers.”
Also wouldn’t Dacascos have been a likely guy to star in THE MATRIX if they’d had to make it on a low budget? I mean I don’t think you can top Keanu but I think he would’ve been a better backup than some of the guys who famously turned it down.
Takács followed this with the SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH tv movie that launched the popular tv series. He later reunited with Dacascos for REDLINE and two episodes of The Crow: Stairway to Heaven.