Director David Ayer is proving to be increasingly adept at character work, but the plot of Sabotage is too dumb and opaque to recommend the film.
Director David Ayer and I have something of a tempestuous relationship. For several years – following his first two films Harsh Times and Street Kings – I was very negative about his output, assuming that he was only capable of thuddingly overblown crime dramas about corrupt cops; some of Christian Bale’s speeches in the little-seen Harsh Times skirt dangerously close to camp. I’m also (and please, no hate) not the biggest fan of the Oscar-winning hit Training Day, which I know is beloved by many. But then in 2012, Ayer made good in my heart by making the surprisingly moving found-footage cop drama End of Watch and pretty much redeemed himself. Ayer finally proved that he could make a film with upbeat, appealing cop characters, and present an appealing and emotional day-in-the-life type drama using the found-footage form. I called it one of the best films of that year.
Ayer has now returned with Sabotage, the latest Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, which is – naturally – another violent, action-packed drama about corrupt cops. In terms of production values, star power, and down-to-earth professionalism, this is a step up for Ayer; Sabotage feels less filthy and haphazard that his earlier films. Sadly, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily coherent. Sabotage is a mess of untied plot threads, random acts of violence, and ineffable character motivations. Trying to suss out the plans of the (eventually revealed) bad guy(s) is a near-impossible task, and the final scenes reveal certain things about Schwarzenegger’s character that only kind of make sense in the context of the movie.
Schwarzenegger plays the head of a team of super-tough military types who work for the DEA. They all go by colorful nicknames like Monster (Sam Worthington), Neck (Josh Holloway), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Pyro (Max Martini), and Lizzie (Mireille Enos) a hyperactive drug addict whose wiry awesomeness stands out; it will be Lizzie whom you remember the best. The team members get mixed up with a fortune of missing drug money, are ousted, and are eventually reinstated as DEA agents, all in time to be mysteriously picked off one-by-one by an unseen assailant. The cop on the case is the stalwart Caroline (Olivia Williams), who manages to transcend the usual takes-no-guff cop clichés to emerge as a textured and interesting character.
Indeed, all the characters in Sabotage are textured and interesting. Ayer has a good ear for the kind of filthy, friendly banter that forms between long-time co-workers. Each of the characters seems to be in an intimate place with all the others, where playful insults and borderline verbal harassment are seen as bonding exercises. The scenes where people are sitting around chatting with co-workers are funny, light, and believable. Yes, even Schwarzenegger comes across as a fun-loving, foul-mouthed den mother, rather than a cartoonish grizzled badass. Williams and Enos are the standouts here, though, creating whole, relatable people who pretty much carry the movie.
It’s when we get to the actual plot that Sabotage begins to flag. The fact that the DEA team is being hunted down and violently murdered is interesting (And, wow, the violence! One character is nailed to the ceiling and gutted), but the story quickly becomes lost within a myriad of extra threads, red herrings, and unknowable character motivations. Once the mysterious killer’s identity is revealed, and other plot twists occur, you begin to question why they did such things, how they managed to do it, why they didn’t do other things, etc., etc., etc. As a drama, Sabotage unravels in a mass of stabbings, shootings, drugs, and other forms of extreme vice.
I’m still interested to see what Ayer will do next. Maybe in the next film, he’ll find the balance between interesting people and an interesting story.