With Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello. Directed by David Ayer. Written by Skip Woods and David Ayer. Rated R for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use. 109 minutes.
Since leaving the California governor’s mansion and returning to the big screen, Arnold Schwarzenegger has not had much luck at the box office with conventional action movies like “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan.” For all their action, they were a little too arch, as if it was still the 1980s and we were expecting him to utter some new catchphrase. SABOTAGE goes in an entirely different direction. It is a tough, gritty story that could have been made with a different actor in the part. It’s not a vehicle for Schwarzenegger.
Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the head of an elite undercover DEA unit that takes down major drug distributors. In the film’s opening set piece, he and his team invade a mansion held by a foreign drug cartel for a dual purpose: to get the bad guys but also to skim $10 million off the cash stockpiled there. Things go wrong and Wharton and the others find themselves relieved of duty and under investigation.
The main story kicks in when they’re all reinstated, and then–one by one–start getting bumped off in horrifically violent ways. Is it revenge from the drug cartel or is it someone else? The Atlanta homicide detective (Olivia Williams) assigned to the case not only finds herself caught up in law enforcement rivalries, but a bloody mystery in which she can’t be sure whom she can trust.
The other DEA agents turn out to be as “colorful” as Breacher. Monster (Sam Worthington) is married to Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who is also part of the team. Grinder (Joe Manganiello) towers over Breacher. Sugar (Terence Howard) is a smooth talker but, like the others, lives on the adrenaline rush of their jobs. They work hard and they play hard, and when they start getting killed, they’re lucky if all their body parts are in one place.
There are a number of mysteries afoot that slowly play out. In the meantime there are shootouts and car chases and a series of betrayals that payoff late in the film with Schwarzenegger playing it straight. There are no winks at the audience that this is just a goofy action movie. To the contrary, the characters all act as if the stakes are high and their lives are on the line, as they are.
While the film boasts a strong cast, the stand out is Williams as the police detective who is the outsider to what is going on. As she tries to get to the bottom of it we see she is human, but she is also a solid professional who does what it takes to get the job right. When the others threaten to get too cartoonish with their machismo–including Enos– he brings the proceedings back to Earth.
“Sabotage” (which has nothing to do with the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title that most of the audience wouldn’t even have heard of) is the sort of violent, hard-boiled action film that surprises. The genre is often played with a nudge and a wink to the audience that of course we’re not to take it seriously. Not this time.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, MA.