Although Sabotage is loosely based on the novel Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie, the creator of Miss Marple and Hercules Poirot couldn’t have dreamt of such a violent and gory adaptation of one of her books – or that it would star the Austrian Oak himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Director and co-writer David Ayer’s last film was End Of Watch, a nail-bitingly intense police thriller starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Ayer brings a similar sense of immediacy to his action scenes, plus the same preoccupation with characters kicking in doors and shouting. Schwarzenegger plays John “Breacher” Wharton, the leader of an elite squad of DEA agents who are trained to infiltrate and wipe out drug gangs with extreme prejudice. As Sabotage begins, Breacher and his team are in the process of blasting their way into a drug cartel’s mansion, where they plan to shoot a bunch of bad guys and make off with a $10m chunk of their drug money in the process.
Unfortunately, there are a few problems. One, the money disappears when the team attempt to recover it from a hiding place a short while later. Two, the FBI gets wind of what the team have been up to, and puts them under close scrutiny for the best part of six months. And then, just when the investigation’s dropped, the team start to die in ugly and bizarre circumstances, one by one.
Even at the grand age of 66, Schwarzenegger remains a domineering and charismatic screen presence. Here, he’s surrounded by an extensive group of young whippersnappers in supporting roles. On his crew of rough-and-ready troopers are Terrence Howard’s Sugar, Mireille Enos’s Lizzy, Lost’s Josh Holloway as Neck, and Avatar’s Sam Worthington (here beefed up almost beyond recognition) as Monster.
It’s a decent cast, yet the characters the actors inhabit are all like something out of a Duke Nukem game. They bicker and they cajole and they swear. They wave dollar bills at strippers and punch security guards to the ground when they’re moaned at for carousing too loudly. They’re so distractingly foul-mouthed and borderline psychotic, it comes as something as a surprise when we learn that Lizzy and Monster are actually lovers – and further, that they share a plush house with electricity and running water. Their behaviour’s such that it’s easy to assume that they’d live in a cave.
Schwarzenegger fares better in what is effectively the role of father and whistle-blowing PE teacher to this uncontrollable rabble, yet even his character remains something of a sullen, embittered enigma for much of the film. For long stretches, the drama’s carried by two homicide detectives – Caroline (Olivia Williams) and her partner Jackson (Harold Perrineau, another Lost survivor) – who also bicker and make off-colour remarks to one another, but at least succeed in coming across as less objectionable than Breacher’s dwindling posse.
As an action film, Sabotage is fast-paced and extraordinarily violent – in fact, this may be Arnold’s most bloodthirsty movie since Total Recall. There are close-ups of oozing bullet wounds, gore spiralling around in fountains, and internal organs lying in sodden heaps. Ayer takes his scenes of death and torture to grim, even crass extremes, and it’s difficult to tell what he’s up to here; is he trying to provoke us, to subvert the action genre from within, as Paul Verhoeven did with his Hollywood movies? Is he trying to channel the spirit of Sergio Leone and his brand of bleak westerns?
Admittedly, Ayer stages some of these sequences masterfully. A scene where Breacher approaches the house of a fallen comrade is cleverly edited. There’s a thrilling car chase that works so well because Ayer constantly places his camera in the centre of the action. At the same time, there’s a cloying sense of nihilism to Sabotage that becomes all the more glaring as the film progresses; the story takes place in a world where warmth, generosity or kindness simply don’t exist. Corruption is everywhere, and no one, it seems, can really be trusted – and far less liked.
With a lesser leading performer than Schwarzenegger at its centre, Sabotage probably would have been an even more despairing film than it is. The people that surround him are almost uniformly obnoxious, but Schwarzenegger remains a dependable leading man, smoking his cigars, scowling (Eastwood style) and making wry comments. There’s even a welcome, post-modern moment where Caroline looks around Breacher’s house, spots a picture of Schwarzenegger shaking hands with President Reagan, and asks, innocently, “Are you some kind of big deal?” to which Breacher replies with a knowing shrug, “I’ve been around.”
It’s a good-natured moment, yet it also encapsulates what’s difficult to reconcile in Ayer’s film: the scenes of wise-cracking and locker room hazing sit uneasily with all the graphic deaths, dismemberments and autopsies. Neither as cartoonish as, say, The Expendables nor as coherent as End Of Watch (which has similarly convincing scenes of gang crime and moral malaise), Sabotage ultimately falls between two stools. Schwarzenegger remains a dignified presence from beginning to end, but the film around him disappears in a haze of gunsmoke and gore.
Sabotage is out on the 7th May in the UK.
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