No, no, no it wasn’t supposed to be like this! Sabotage was one of my most anticipated films of the year. Writer/director David Ayer’s coming off the excellent End of Watch, which made my top ten in 2012, and I’ve honestly been enjoying Arnold Schwarzenegger’s comeback so far. The Last Stand was a blast of fun, though his acting was on the creakier side, while the lesser Escape Plan was still considerably better than it got credit for, and featured one of his more impressive performances. Sabotage really looked to be the film that would earn him the notices to cement his return to the big screen. A talented director on the rise, an ensemble cast populated by some interesting actors, a fascinating premise of a modern crime/action thriller apparently inspired by an old Agatha Christie story, where did it go wrong? I’m tempted to lay the blame at the feet of screenwriter Skip Woods, whose terrible back catalogue includes such failures as Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and A Good Day to Die Hard, but Sabotage unfortunately has problems beyond the script level.
Arnold himself is not one of the issues though, he’s no longer the unstoppable juggernaut he once was and knows it. He’s the ageing leader of an elite team of DEA agents whose legendary reputation draws on Schwarzenegger’s own, but he’s also a broken man haunted by a terrible event from his past he failed to prevent. He gives a decent performance here, but is watered down by the rest of his team. They’re not set up as heroes at all but they’re a repellent bunch, adopting stupid monikers like “Grinder” and “Monster”, they spend all the time they’re not working drinking, getting into fights, and being generally rude to everyone around them. These traits wouldn’t be so unpleasant if they had a bit of personality to them but they’re all essentially interchangeable, even though many are played by recognisable actors like Terrence Howard and Sam Worthington, even the lone female member (World War Z star Mireille Enos) acts in almost the exact same way. Arnold’s the only one who brings some identity and charisma to his role. At least Olivia Williams, as a cop who gets sucked into their world, has a slightly different part to play.
It’s also not especially clear whether or not they’re supposed to be entirely corrupt, they’re portrayed as effective at their job performing drug busts but the operation that sets the whole plot in motion involves them attempting to steal $10 million in drug money from the cartel, which immediately goes missing. Unsure of who’s responsible, the team begins to turn on each other as they get picked off one by one.
I’ve read that Ayer’s original cut of the film played out as more of a mystery and was edited by the studio to be more action-based. I can believe that as Ayer’s previous work hasn’t been too heavy on the action. The action scenes here are mostly unremarkable and what’s left of the mystery storyline struggles to hold interest. You don’t know who’s responsible but it doesn’t feel like much of a surprising twist when you find out, and it’s easy to forget that it’s the central thread of the film.
Ayer also has an unusual obsession with swearing, both of his last films had huge f-word counts, but it felt a little more natural in the realistic cops and gangs world of End of Watch. Here the constant stream of F-bombs from the team members just begin to prove distracting; at one point I actually started noticing if anyone of them said a sentence that didn’t include some form of “fuck”.
Sabotage isn’t an embarrassment for Schwarzenegger like some of his older films were, but it’s a step back for Ayer. I can’t say whether it’s mostly the fault of the studio cuts or not but we’ve been left with a nasty and monotonous crime thriller padded out with a few action beats. He’s got World War II film Fury out at the end of the year to look forward too but Sabotage is one of the year’s biggest disappointments so far.
NOTE: I was originally going to be more negative with this review, as I thought the film closed on a completely unsatisfactory note. However when I was fact checking the film’s Wikipedia page before publishing, the plot summary described another scene after the ending I saw (for those who’ve seen it, the credits ran after the crane shot of Olivia Williams standing in the road in my theatre). After a quick look online I found someone had thankfully uploaded the scene in question to YouTube and I could see it there. I have no idea why on earth anyone would remove this scene, as it’s quite relevant, or why the cut I saw lacked it, but it looks like this wasn’t a common occurrence as I could find no similar complaints anywhere.