Sabotage (Rated R, 109 minutes)
Well this is Arnold’s third movie in a little over a year and still I am longing for the movies of his heyday. His first foray back to the action genre, The Last Stand, is an underwhelming action comedy; but Escape Plan is a fun contained story, however, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s acting is clearly the weakest link. In the latter, one can tell that ‘Sly’ has continuously made films and Arnold took a hiatus; but the Austrian was never going to win an Academy Award. He was known for his charisma, which lit up the screen when he was working on ‘hard R action’ films or action comedies. Now, Sabotage ‘sort of’ falls into the former category, but at the same time, it is a character-piece thriller, which clearly reveals Arnold as the weakest link of the ensemble.
The trailers have resulted in the popular misconception of Sabotage’s plot; while the missing money serves as the MacGuffin or the main mystery of the story, Arnold’s wife and kid is kidnapped before the movie even starts. So the trailers wrongfully make this look life the typical ‘run of the mill’ action adventure, where the team must band together to save another soldier’s family. Instead, the audience sees a much darker thriller then expected; this nihilistic interpretation elevates it over the average action picture.
But Sabotage does have the machismo humor one expects from a movie about Special Force soldiers, but also, has some of the darkest material seen in a mainstream action flick. And that is the main problem with Arnold; while the machismo humor is in his area of expertise, the nihilistic portrayal of supposedly ‘brothers in arms’ reveals material that is too dark for Arnold’s talents. Again, Arnold’s wheelhouse is very limited, but his charisma in the 80s and 90s led to some of the most entertaining action films in cinema history; and I do respect his departure from his normality, but one can clearly tell that he does not feel comfortable with his line delivery.
As for the rest of the ensemble, they range from under-utilized to surprisingly entertaining. While most of the soldiers are never given enough screen time to become more than cardboard cut outs, there are some surprisingly deep performances hidden behind the machismo dialogue. Now as the trailers have shown, Arnold’s highly trained soldiers are mysteriously being killed; however, the audience is never surprised by who dies because of the predictability: the biggest stars will make it to the end and those that are under written are likely to die first.
With that said, though certain aspects of the ensemble is under utilized, three performances separate themselves from the rest; Mireille Enos, Joe Manganiello, and most surprisingly Sam Worthington. Enos’ feisty drug fueled Lizzy borders on the line of caricature, but as some call her character misogynistic, I call Lizzy an interesting three-dimensional person with baggage. On top of this, Joe Manganiello’s intimidating ‘Grinder’ is a welcomed change of pace for the True Blood star. While the character seems to be one-note in certain scenes, his scene-stealing aura pulls off what could have been an incredibly laughable look. Some may look at ‘Grinder’ as a product of the 80s, however, his progression throughout the movie reflects the evolution of that machismo type; my only problem is that with such a large cast, Manganiello gets shoved in the background and under utilized.
But the most surprising performance comes from Sam Worthington; now, I have never been a fan of the Clash of the Titans star, however, he disappears into ‘Monster,’ who also happens to be the most humanized and relatable character of the ensemble. I always assumed that Worthington was nothing more than an overrated action star who had very little charisma; meanwhile, his cheesy looking ‘Monster’ becomes the most interesting character of the bunch. Again, I just wish Worthington got more screen time because he humanizes the machismo lifestyle by properly delivering emotion with the very flawed dialogue.
Now, director David Ayer and known action writer Skip Woods wrote the very flawed script. While David Ayer has become famous for his ability to perfectly write the inner-workings of cops (mostly LAPD), Skip Woods has become infamous for writing some of the worst action films in recent memory: A Good Day to Die Hard, Swordfish, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. One can certainly hear Ayer’s dialogue combating Skip Woods’ writing; now I cannot truthfully say which part he or Woods wrote, but Ayer writing, specifically his dialogue, has a distinct style. Films like End of Watch, Harsh Times, and Training Day have a distinct pace to them; the dialogue in all of those films reflect a rapport that is hard to imitate.
Meanwhile, in Sabotage the dialogue is all over the place; yes, I have never been on a Special Forces team, but the movie stereotype of macho dialogue is expected here. However, while the vulgar rapport between the team makes them seem like a family, other times the ‘hard R’ dialogue feels forced. I am not squeamish to the ‘F-word’ or male anatomy jokes, but there is a time and place: and several times throughout this picture, it did not fit or feel right. And at the same time, the actual story remains fairly predictable throughout; while the movie partially works at being more than an action flick, it fails to work as the dark thriller it intends to be.
On top of this, it bothers me to say that David Ayer’s direction is all over the place. Most of the action has innovated camera shots that add to the frantic pace, but the movie suffers from non-action lag and weird transitions. Constantly, the static camera slows down the non-action scenes; obviously, talking scenes do not have to be boring, but the basic ‘film school camera set ups’ hurt the sometimes interesting filler. On top of this, the way Sabotage jumps from scene to scene is annoying and sometimes confusing; perhaps, the transitions help keep a fast pace, but several times, the fade outs jump months ahead or a scene unexplainably jumps to another plot point, which sacrifices the storytelling to keep the plot moving. This both helps and hinders Sabotage; while I wanted more focus on the ensemble cast, it did progress the story fast enough to keep me interested. As previously stated, this is a thriller at heart, but the director wants to keep the story moving like in an action movie.
And for the most part, Ayer knows how to shoot action; I love his choice to use squibs over CGI because the old-fashion blood gives a ‘down and dirty’ feel that matches the nihilism. However, after a few beautifully shot and executed action scenes, the last two, which happens within minutes of each other, are anti-climactic and boring. It feels like the other scenes were properly thought out and had a kinetic energy, and the last two were phoned in: particularly the last car chase scene, which is the only scene that utilizes the horrendous shaky cam technique. With this aid, I have to give a quick warning to all viewers; even though the action is spread out, the violence is a ‘hard R’ and I would not recommend this to those who are squeamish.
In the end, this is not the movie Arnold should be doing if he wants to get back to the height of his heyday. While I liked this better than The Last Stand, he does not have the acting chops for the bleak Sabotage. I do believe this film would have been better if it casted Stallone or even Neeson because their talent could have worked with this material (if you do not believe me about Neeson watch The Grey). However, even with those actors thiswould still have its flaws; but even with its flaws, I have to respect the tone because commercial films are not usually this bleak and nihilistic. Those who expect a straight action movie will be thoroughly disappointed and, even though, Sabotage mostly fails as a thriller, it was enjoyable enough to admire the attempt.