I can’t fathom why when END OF WATCH was so dynamic, David Ayers directorial follow-up, SABOTAGE, is so inert. Where END OF WATCH had depth and energy, SABOTAGE is is rambling, and at times incongruous, as it unspools a set of stock characters dithering about in a cesspool of rubbery ethics and dogged determination.
Perhaps it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. His is a major presence in any undertaking, but presence is not quite the same thing as acting, and Arnold is given to poses that belong carved in stone on the sides of mountain, not finding the truth of a character or going for any emotional resonance. Hence, as Breacher, the troubled leader of a crack DEA undercover team, the granite-profile and frozen sneer fail to convey the magnitude of loss his character has experienced. Nor does it convey the willingness, as Breacher puts it, to take a bullet for any member of that team. It’s a sentiment central to the story of said DEA team infiltrating a notorious drug cartel, and then skimming off 10 million dollars before turning the perps over to the authorities.
The stolen money goes missing, and, unfortunately for the crack team who are now left empty-handed, the powers-that-be know that it was there to begin with. Suspicion dogs, both from the DEA, which can’t find evidence to make a case against them, and from the tough, slightly mannish lady cop (Olivia Williams), who refuses to walk away when the team starts turning up dead in particularly gruesome ways.
Ayer has substituted gratuitous shots of assorted blood, gore and decomposing body parts for any real sense of tension. Bits of brain and viscera become so overwhelming that even the slightly mannish lady cop loses her cool when confronted by one team member who has been nailed to the ceiling and then gutted, leaving his intestines hanging like so many streamers.
It’s that kind of film.
The team itself veers into the ridiculous. There’s the biker dude (Joe Manganiello) with cornrows, leathers, and obnoxious persona. There’s hipster dude (an unrecognizable Sam Worthington), with braided goatee and cool piercings. There’s the messed up macho chick (Mireille Enos), married to hipster dude, but not necessarily into him. There’s also the requisite black dude (Terrence Howard with voice quavering as though on the verge of tears in any situation), and assorted other bad-ass dudes who sneer at conventional law enforcement, and party down with booze and strippers to show how very bad-ass they actually are. Enos, supposedly the seductive siren of the group, is also its requisite junkie, and though Enos is a fine actress, one only has to watch her in AMC’s The Killing, here she is like 10 miles of very bad road threatening to implode at any moment while barking out lines with the conviction of a trained magpie.
Worthington comes very close to finding more than a stereotype in his character, but his efforts are suffocated in a predictable plot devolution, and a finale of a car chase that proves that a crack team of highly trained DEA agents can’t hit the side of a metaphorical barn with a non-metaphorical machine gun.
And then there’s Arnold, who speaks his lines in the same timbre and tone no matter what, be it a wisecrack or ham-handed moment of vulnerability. He’s a walking animatronic figure, and while that was just the ticket for playing a Terminator, it suits very little else. When the slightly mannish lady cop suddenly plants a big wet one on his lips, it’s such a cinematic non sequitur that the preview audience with whom I shared the experience hooted, and not in delight.
SABOTAGE feels like the transition film for Arnold, as he embraces his golden years and leaves most of the action to those carrying fewer decades. Kudos for a graceful acknowledgement of the passing years, but he’s going to need another shot at being a real thespian.