David Ayer has built his name on gritty crime films. He wrote the screenplay for Training Day, he wrote and directed End Of Watch, but he was also responsible for S.W.A.T.‘s script and the writing and directing duties on Harsh Times and Street Kings. In short: his track record is far from spotless, which is why each new Ayer film can go either way. Sabotage, the screenplay for which he co-wrote with Skip Woods, is Ayer’s latest directorial effort and it follows an elite DEA task force that, following some shady dealings, gets picked off one by one in true Agatha Christie fashion. Meanwhile Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team leader John Wharton tries to find out who’s doing this and why exactly this is happening, aided by Olivia Williams’ investigator.
It’s a simple but effective premise and Ayer and Woods have created a suitably murky world for a action thriller like this: Wharton’s entire team is shady, the DEA higher-ups are shady and threat of drug cartels and hit squads is always present in the background. It lends a broody and pulpy quality to a film that’s not interested in realism, but in telling a macho murder mystery in a setting Ayer knows like the back of his hand. This means that there are plenty of dumb one-liners, fist fights for no reason and, whenever guns are drawn, buckets of blood. It never reaches grindhouse levels of absurdity, but the film definitely presents itself as a guilty pleasure, like a movie that knows exactly what it is and one that wants you along on that ride. Sadly, everything falls apart in the third act: we get a rushed conclusion that, in retrospect, makes what came before it unravel fast and, because of this pedestrian conclusion, Sabotage ends in disappointment. It’s the type of twist that hasn’t been thought through and, therefor, cheapens the overall film because, suddenly, you’re left a lot of plot holes to scratch your head over.
Aside from some very confusing investigation scenes that splice the events of a murder into the actual investigation without any visual distinction, Sabotage is solidly directed and edited. Shootouts are tense, an Ayer hallmark, and there’s a sense that something could happen at any minute, which does make the Ten Little Indians-type plot fairly effective. Fairly because very few of the characters are actually fleshed out, which means that you don’t connect to most or what happens to them. As a result it leaves very little impact when someone bites the dust, which is worsened by the macho culture at the hard of the film: these tough men and women will have a beer when a comrade falls and then move on. Especially Schwarzenegger fails to show much emotion; cast members Joe Manganiello, Olivia Williams and especially Sam Worthington, who delivers a warm and nuanced standout performance here, fare much better.
Sabotage is a guilty pleasure that certainly is entertaining, but its flaws also make it a passable film. 6/10