by Tony Dayoub
Sabotage is a visceral (literally) new white-knuckler that often turns on some fairly surprising plot twists. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays John "Breacher" Wharton, a legendary DEA agent who leads a squad of unruly undercover agents that also happen to be about the best there are at what they do. The nervy prologue shows us the team in action. Lizzy (Mireille Enos) has infiltrated a party at a drug lord's mansion pretending to be a hooker. Breacher makes the requisite macho joke to her husband "Monster" (Sam Worthington) about how she may be the one with the bigger balls. The rest of the roughneck crew—Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Neck (Josh Holloway), Pyro (Max Martini), and Sugar (Terrence Howard)—all have a laugh before they get to work breaking in after her to confiscate the cash. They funnel $10 million of it down into the sewer by way of a toilet filthier than the one in Trainspotting, burn the rest, and manage to exit with the loss of only one life. Which is to say, drug enforcement is the dirtiest of jobs, and it takes this type-A boys club and the kind of woman that can keep up with them to get it done. But before they can retrieve the cash and tag it for evidence, it's already gone missing. Someone on their team can't be trusted.
As the entire team falls under a black cloud of suspicion, director David Ayer (End of Watch) skillfully winds up the multiple threads that run through Sabotage until they're taut enough to play the movie's audience like a violin. There's the casual sexism that Lizzy is constantly subjected to by the rest of the team and how she exploits it to get what she wants. There's the underlying tension between Lizzy's husband Monster and the rest of the men concerning who's got primacy when it comes to her. There's Breacher's insistence on keeping the ostracized team's familial and filial ties intact just as distrust grows over who might have absconded with the cash. Then there's the incident in Mexico that happened months before the movie proper begins and how it hovers unspoken over all of Sabotage. And all of it plays out against a Ten Little Indians-style whodunit as, one by one, each squad member meets a gruesome fate presumably at the hand of whoever stole the millions.
Ayer knows that this has been done before, so the only way to keep the viewer in the dark is to distract or divert their attention. He does so with the edgy expertise of a veteran action filmmaker. Chase scenes are shot from a first-person perspective inside the car. Gunfights frequently occur with the camera at either or both ends of the barrel depending on who Ayer wants you to feel has the advantage. At one point, Breacher's visit to one retired teammate is cut in such a way as to fool the viewer that the parallel action between the team leader and his former subordinate are occurring simultaneously when there's a very distinct reason it turns out that it's not. Viewers are enlisted into being part of the action from the get-go, both implicating them as accomplices in the crime and making them perplexed victims of the betrayal committed by one of the once trusted teammates.
Schwarzenegger is rarely called upon to give as complex a performance as the one he gives in Sabotage. Breacher is a man who sacrificed the stability of a regular family for the thrills of this volatile one and has begun to realize it was a horrible exchange. Save for an ill-advised, valedictory coda that comes across as a bit of a western spoof, the movie grants Schwarzenegger the chance to play the role of an action star's lifetime. Breacher may be Schwarzenegger's Rooster Cogburn but it's unnecessary to be so explicit about it. Ayer also rounds the rest of the cast out with a multitude of recognizable faces, the better to throw off anyone guessing who the villain is simply by trying to spot the well-known character actor who doesn't seem to have as much to do as the other players. One of the most unexpected parts of Sabotage is how pivotal the two female characters are in the story. Mireille Enos plays Lizzy as a bitter, burnt-out thrillseeker hopped up on drugs of her own who knows more than she lets on. And Olivia Williams plays the lead police investigator, an example of a tough female character who is allowed to show vulnerability and isn't automatically set up to be a castrating bitch.
In some ways, Sabotage recalls Extreme Prejudice, a little seen 80s crime mash-up by the underrated Walter Hill. Like in that movie, Sabotage pits a team of mercenaries against a cop in an investigation where she's out of her depth. But Ayer repeatedly finds ways to make the familiar tale feel fresh. It's a gift to the solid cast, particularly standouts like Enos, Williams, and of course, Schwarzenegger. Most of all, it's a love letter to action fans who haven't quite given up yet on a once thriving genre.