Last year, writing about Arnold Schwarzenegger’s then-latest film, I wrote, “‘The Last Stand’ isn’t an action movie, a comedy, a crime thriller, or a Western. It’s an Arnold, the smallest genre in cinema. Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the only post-silent era actor whose participation mandates that a film be thought of as something other than what it ostensibly is.”
Here we are, some 15 months later, and another Arnold has hit screens, and again, it supports my hypothesis. David Ayer’s “Sabotage” absolutely demands it be watched with the actor’s filmography in mind. Even though Ayer promised in interviews to deliver an Arnold like we haven’t seen before, the actor’s presence dominates the proceedings, giving Schwarzenegger’s character a depth carved out by decades of iconography. “Sabotage” has been justly compared to “Unforgiven” in this respect, because as Clint Eastwood’s William Munny brought with him the weight of the screen legend’s former antihero gunslingers, so does Schwarzenegger’s John Wharton represent a lengthy list of macho killers, now observed from a different, reflective angle.
Wharton, nicknamed “Breacher,” is the leader of an elite team of heavily-tattooed, anti-social misfits, and I’m not talking about the kitchen staff at a chain restaurant; they’re DEA agents whose specialty is door-kicking drug cartel strongholds.
In the post-Governator stage of his career, Schwarzenegger has wisely, and interestingly, ceded some of his usual screen-time to supporting casts while still keeping the aforementioned sense of presence intact. This is evidenced by his small parts in “The Expendables” movies, his second-lead status under Sylvester Stallone in “Escape Plan,” and the well-populated “The Last Stand.”
“Sabotage” makes the most of Schwarzenegger’s new strategy, ending up as something of a marvel of ensemble character development, with its expansive cast given plenty of screen-time, both with and aside from Schwarzenegger, to thrive. A couple standouts are Olivia Williams as an Atlanta detective (and Schwarzenegger’s semi-love interest), Harold Perrineau as her loyal partner, and Sam Worthington as the team’s conscience, the sole member who at any given point seems like a decent man. But the best performance belongs to Mireille Enos as Worthington’s wife and fellow team member, a sexy, dangerous, drug-addled, insane operator who intimidates her very male colleagues with manic ferocity. It’s a performance that, if there’s any justice in Hollywood, will break Enos out of being cast as the useless housewife in big-budget fare like “Gangster Squad” and “World War Z.”
Schwarzenegger, plenty old enough to cash a Social Security check, also gives one of his best performances, certainly his top since 1994’s “True Lies.” There’s little in the way of his trademark wisecracking, but his charm, fueled by his alpha male appearance and a deservedly cocky smirk, is wholly intact. Yet, even maintaining Schwarzenegger’s toughness, Ayer sees vulnerability in him, a man whose heart beats to the tunes of guilt and bloodlust, perceptions undoubtedly aided by his public personal troubles. I’m not sure if much of this undercurrent will translate for an Arnold-ignorant audience, but for fans it’s a surprisingly pensive delight, a fine example of how art and iconography can winningly intertwine.
Ayer, famous as the screenwriter of “Training Day” and the writer/director of 2012’s stellar cop drama “End of Watch,” has an ear for cop talk and the grimmest areas of law enforcement, a career already assumed to be emphatically unpleasant. Ayer skillfully threads a small needle with Wharton and his team, as their abrasive, profane, jarringly harsh camaraderie convincingly shifts to cool professionalism on missions and to relatable angst when out of the team environment. The abrasive nastiness of the characters clicks, their rapport coming across as sincere and earned, with the film suggesting, clearly but without pretension, that the vicious nature of their work has a way of sanding the morality off of anyone’s soul.
As an action director, Ayer is better than most currently working, with the many fights and shootouts rendered clearly, even with shaky cam, and with a certain reverence for the visceral thrills of thunderous gunfire and efficient killing. “Sabotage” is an exceptionally violent film, even by the standards of a man who starred in the original “Total Recall,” with externalized internal organs and torture not uncommon sights.
The story, which clearly doesn’t matter much as I’ve gone this whole review without referencing it, is allegedly based on a book by Agatha Christie, which—and I’m not going to check Wikipedia for this—has to mark the first time something of Schwarzenegger’s was based on anything Christie wrote. It sees Wharton’s team exterminated by unknown assailants in the aftermath of a drug bust/heist gone bad. It’s the film’s primary, glaring flaw, as the plot features a litany of holes that ultimately make a coherent explanation of who did what and when impossible, a mess likely brought on by reported reshoots that significantly altered the third act. But with a final scene of gunfire and brimstone, one thing is clear: Arnold, for better or worse, has still got it.