A film review by Craig J. Koban August 7, 2014 


2014, R, 110 mins.


Arnold Schwarzenegger as John 'Breacher' Wharton  /  Sam Worthington as Monster  /  Joe Manganiello as Grinder  /  Josh Holloway as Neck  /  Max Martini as Pyro  /  Terrence Howard as Sugar  /  Mireille Enos as Lizzy  /  Olivia Williams as Investigator Caroline Brentwood

Directed by David Ayer  /  Written by Skip Woods

Those of you journeying out to see SABOTAGE and expecting a fine return to pre-politician, action-hero-films-of-yesteryear form from Arnold Schwarzenegger may be setting themselves up for some supreme disappointment.  

The trailers for writer/director David Ayer’s modestly budgeted $35 million crime thriller certainly promised, on some levels, the cheesy, intellectually vacant, and entertainingly disposable hard-R rated action vehicles that made Au-nald a bona fide star in the 80’s and 90’s, but the film itself achieves a refreshing kind of bait and switch.  Ayer’s film is just as blood spattered and soaked – perhaps more –  as the most gratuitously violent of Schwarzenegger’s past endeavors, but SABOTAGE emerges as a more darkly fascinating character driven action thriller.  

As a filmmaker, Ayer seems to have a finger squarely on the pulse of cops-on-the-edge thrillers (he very famously write TRAINING DAY and wrote and directed END OF WATCH), and he certainly seems to take great relish in investigating and celebrating the macabre underbelly of law enforcement in SABOTAGE (granted, this time he tackles the world of seedy and disreputable DEA agents).  This, of course, allows for his main star to both embody and paradoxically shed his past iconic moniker of rugged, masculine bravado and power in the movies.  Schwarzenegger has arguably not played a character as richly textured, complex, flawed, and twisted in his entire career, and his turn in the film marks one of his finest performances in recent memory.  It’s kind of wonderful seeing the legendary action star both occupy and step outside of his comfort zone in SABOTAGE; he’s still a physically commanding presence even as he approaches senior citizenship, but there’s a grit and world weariness in his character here that seems largely absent from his other roles.  



Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, a grizzled ol’ veteran leader of an elite squadron of DEA agents from the Special Ops Division.  Even though his peers regard him with a certain level of awe, Breacher harbors a dark past and even darker secrets.  His team works steadfastly by his side, including James “Monster” Murray (an unrecognizable – and better for it – Sam Worthington), his wife Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Eddie “Neck” Jordan (Josh Holloway), Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini), Bryce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance) and “Smoke” Jennings (Mark Schlegel).  The opening of the film showcases a daring raid of a drug cartel by Breacher and his crew, which culminates in them locating $10 million in drug money. 

Alas, Breacher’s DEA team does not confiscate the money, but rather steals and hides it in a sewer pipe to collect later on (perhaps not the best place to leave that kind of money, but never mind).  Unfortunately, when they return to the cartel money’s hiding place they discover – to their horror – that it has disappeared, which ultimately leads to Breacher’s superior (Martin Donovan) launching an investigation into the now disgraced DEA squad.  He suspends Breacher and his team, but when no tangible evidence surfaces to adequately pinpoint quilt, Breacher and his squad are reinstated, but Breacher’s crew have become bitter, distrusting, and emotionally unhinged during the entire ordeal.  Worse yet, someone begins killing Breacher’s team off methodically one at a time, which leaves him and those that remain deeply suspicious as to each other’s possible involvement.  Is the drug cartel they robbed the real perpetrators or is it a deliberate act of sabotage by one of the DEA agents themselves to secure all the stolen loot?  Hmmmm… 

SABOTAGE is plotted and paced on reasonably solid footing, especially for the way it marries aspects of the crime action thriller genre with the whodunit mystery.  Viscerally, Ayer’s film is grungy and dirty, which is typified by the wonderfully lurid cinematography by Bruce McCleery, who gives the film a stark sheen of hideous verisimilitude.  The film is also hideously violent at times, and it could be debated that Ayer can’t seem to decide if he’s celebrating/glorifying or condemning it throughout the film, but he makes up for such topsy-turvy indecisions by honing in on the story’s psychologically damaged characters, all of whom seem to carry great burdens that way heavily on them.  Yes, SABOTAGE offers up many scenes of its biceps-bulging cast spraying the screen with bullets, but it’s more interested in being an introspective journey into their deeply tarnished psyches. 

It could be more-than-easily said that Schwarzenegger’s career as a one-man-army wrecking crew on screen are over, but that oddly serves as a source of inspiration for the former Governator to retool and re-invent his cinematic image to play fallible and tortured characters (and ones that play up to the fact that he’s getting older than dirt).  Breacher is still a tough-as-nails protagonist of the classic Arnold mold, but he’s more compellingly conflicted, uncertain, and vulnerable than what we normally see out of the actor.  Schwarzenegger's supporting cast is stupendous, especially Worthington – an underrated-understated actor – who delves and immerses himself into his character with an intensity not seen before.  Ditto for Mireille Enos, who inhabits her deeply crazed DEA agent with a never-look-back and nostrils-flaring vigor.  I especially liked the off-centered casting of Olivia Williams as the hard-edged and determined Atlanta police detective that’s trying to get to the bottom of the mounting DEA officer murders.  She has a sort of unforced and rugged chemistry with Schwarzenegger that serves their scenes, and the film, rather well. 

The introduction and build up to Ayer’s pessimistically sleazy world in SABOTAGE is exemplarily handled, but the film’s climatic reveal of the real architect of the demise of Breacher’s team is a bit anti-climatic.  Even when the film reaches a point of relative closure in its story, Ayer needless adds on a near-ten-minute epilogue sequence with dumbed-down gunplay that seems superfluously unnecessary, not to mention that it almost derails the kind of inquisitive cerebral action thriller SABOTAGE was trying to be leading up to it.  Still, there are ample merits on display here, which makes the film a far better-than-expected genre effort and a noteworthy attempt to reinvigorate Schwarzenegger’s somewhat staling film career.  SABOTAGE opened with little fanfare earlier this year, did virtually no business, and then unceremoniously disappeared from cinemas. That's sad.  This isn’t the Au-nald action film of old…which is mostly a good thing.

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