Uneven “Sabotage” Revels In Grit, Grime

Thirty minutes into David Ayer’s “Sabotage,” I was certain I was watching the worst film of 2014 to date. The pic’s painfully banal banter pinged around the auditorium like microphone feedback. The cast of tattooed, muscular DEA agents ceaselessly screeched over one another like a deadlocked jury of pre-teens. This was it. Hollywood’s endless stream of drug cartel films had finally bottomed out, and I was there to see it firsthand. But an hour later, I had become swept up in the lunacy unfolding in front of me, lost in reluctant admiration for the pic’s deep commitment to gloom and doom.

Be forewarned. “Sabotage” is relentlessly grim and stocked with deeply unpleasant violence. It’s not much fun, nor is it particularly good. But it is the kind of cathartic action pic that’s been long absent, reminding us that gritty revenge pieces have their place. Add to that a cocktail of both controlled and downright loony performances and the result is something distinct, terse, and undeniably memorable.

That the film is so mercurial is hardly a surprise. David Ayer’s career has been similarly volatile. For every “Training Day,” he’s given us a “Street Kings.” For every “End Of Watch,” a “S.W.A.T.” He’s been reliably unreliable as both a scribe and director, and here he takes on both roles, sharing script duties with Skip Woods, writer of mostly maligned action fare (“A Good Day To Die Hard”). “Sabotage” follows the story of a team of DEA agents accused of stealing $10 million from a drug cartel safe house. Despite an ordinary logline, the film is anything but.

The size of the cast – headlined by Arnold Schwarzenegger as team leader John “Breacher” Wharton – is unwieldy until the narrative shifts into focus. Breacher’s team is being picked off one by one, ostensibly paying for their alleged thievery. Nearly half of the team is only on hand for body count purposes, making for a tremendously shaky first act. Josh Holloway (TV’s “Lost”), Sam Worthington (“Avatar”), Joe Manganiello (“Magic Mike”), Terrence Howard (“Prisoners”), and Mireille Enos (“World War Z”) comprise Breacher’s loud-mouthed team.

Schwarzenegger does good dramatic work here with little support from his supporting players. Enos in particular gives a frenzied performance that’s out of sync with everyone else, her character careening from addled to hysterical. She’s frequently funny in her over-the-top-ness, but it doesn’t fit the pic’s tone. Worthington is similarly off base, doing nothing to silence critics of his unwarranted stardom.

But Olivia Williams (“The Sixth Sense”) is a bright spot, impressing in a surprisingly hefty role as Caroline Brentwood, the cop assigned to the murders. Her rapport with Schwarzenegger is nothing special, but she – and Harold Perrineau (“The Matrix Reloaded”) as her partner – make something of a token subplot, one that emerges as the most intriguing portion of the film. Apart from a mid-film revelation concerning Breacher, Caroline is the only multi-dimensional character in “Sabotage,” and it would be a lesser work without Williams’ involvement.

While the picture goes on longer than it has any right to, a late-game twist mandates a coda – one that Schwarzenegger absolutely relishes. With it, Ayer and Woods complete the unlikely task of tidily wrapping their spectacularly messy movie with a bow. It’s not enough to redeem the disaster of a first act, but it’s an undeniably satisfying conclusion. The film will have its fans and they’ll be right to appreciate its brazenness. It will have plenty of detractors, too, and they won’t be wrong for taking aim at its thinly drawn characters and general ugliness. But cinematic conundrums are hard to come by, making “Sabotage” a worthwhile conversation piece, if nothing else. Both sides have plenty of ammo.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 28, 2014
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: David Ayer
Screenwriter: Skip Woods, David Ayer
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Mireille Enos, Sam Worthington, Harold Perrineau, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Max Martini, Josh Holloway
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use)