By Billy Huntsman
I like violence.
No, I love violence.
And perhaps at no other time in recent American history (except, perhaps, soon after 9/11) has there been a less appropriate time to make this confession. But in order for me to review Sabotage, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, currently available on Netflix streaming, for you, it is a necessary confession.
So, yes, I love violence. But not mindless violence, not violence for the sake of itself—such as is seen in Peter Jackson’s 1992 Dead Alive (a.k.a., Braindead), David Fincher’s 2014 Gone Girl, and any number of ‘80s slasher flicks—but smart violence, violence that enhances the film’s aesthetic intent, story, message.
No Country for Old Men, Inglourious Basterds, The Devil’s Rejects, The Silence of the Lambs, American Psycho, American History X, and hundreds of other films are brilliant, necessarily violent movies.
So, to a lesser degree, is Sabotage.
The film, written and directed by David Ayer, whose other efforts include such films as Training Day, End of Watch, and Fury, follows a special operations team within the Drug Enforcement Administration. At the beginning of the film, the team, led by “Breacher” (Schwarzenegger), infiltrates a warehouse of a fictional Mexican drug cartel, from which the team steals $10 million of a $200 million block of money.
This $10 million the team hides in the sewers beneath the warehouse before blowing up the rest of the money. Returning later for the hidden cache, they find the money has been stolen.
The team are investigated for six months, with no member confessing to the team’s plans. Shortly after the team are reinstated, one of them is brutally killed, followed by another, then another.
After the first killing, two homicide detectives are assigned to investigate the team. The subsequent murders of other team members seem to align with how the cartel, from which the team stole the $10 million, kills people.
Are the team being hunted down by the cartel? Or are the killings more internal?
The film is one of the more violent and graphic I’ve seen in a while. But this alone would not be enough to make me like the film.
I like Sabotage because of David Ayer. Like John Kennedy Toole, author of A Confederacy of Dunces, a book replete with Yat dialogue, a New Orleans dialect, and John Steinbeck’s flair for Okie-talk, Ayer has an ear for authentic dialogue, in most cases the gruff, stripped down talk of men (and women, in Sabotage) in precarious situations: a narcotics detective in South Central Los Angeles, two patrolmen in the same area, tank operators in World War II.
The dialogue in Sabotage is no less authentic than in Training Day or Fury (all of which, however, are inferior to End of Watch), nor is Sabotage less good than those former titles.
The film’s biggest problem is Schwarzenegger. Aside from his undeniable onscreen charisma, nostalgia from the Terminator/Conan/Commando days, Schwarzenegger has no acting finesse, no instincts.
Roger Ebert, the greatest film critic who has ever lived, perfectly summed up Schwarzenegger’s acting range in his review of 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day: “Schwarzenegger’s genius as a movie star is to find roles that build on, rather than undermine, his physical and vocal characteristics.”
In essence, Ebert says Schwarzenegger is perfect for the role of the Terminator because that character is larger than life, much like Schwarzenegger’s physique, and because he’s a machine, so Schwarzenegger’s wooden delivery of lines is perfectly acceptable in that role.
But when it comes time for Arnie to play a human—The Last Action Hero, The Running Man, True Lies, and Sabotage—he can only imitate what he has seen of other actors throughout his lengthy career.
Schwarzenegger is and never has been an actor, he’s a very sophisticated prop the likes of which Linda Hamilton, Jamie Lee Curtis, Robert Patrick, the Predator, Danny DeVito, and James Cameron have used to move stories along.
Altogether, the casting of Schwarzenegger in the lead role is a regrettable decision, one that, I believe, prematurely alienated audiences and critics, and prevented them from taking Sabotage seriously.
But in the end, the film is solid. Its story is compelling, if a little contrived, its violence necessary and interesting, and the acting from the supporting cast passable.