Early in Sabotage, a DEA operative en route to a shoot-first sting asks which team member “dropped ass” in the back of their assault vehicle. The question fits a movie that feels like an unwelcome lingering fart. It’s a cacophonous mishmash of mayhem and murder whose stink nestles in the nostrils from the get-go and a disappointing comedown for director David Ayer after 2012’s incendiary End of Watch.
This Dirty South spin on Ten Little Indians is Arnold Schwarzenegger’s latest effort in his campaign for resurrection. On one hand, it’s refreshing to see the Austrian Oak eschew vanity to expose his gnarls, knots and rings. It’s also admirable that he’s not ruling out the opportunities to play morally gray characters, as his John “Breacher” Wharton heads up a DEA team that’s scamming to skim $10 million off the top of a seizure from the aforementioned sting.
Arnie has never looked more Hestonian. His weathered face looks as though it were peeled back and hurriedly rewrapped around his skull, and his sartorial choices here are equal parts Eddie Bauer and Ed Grimley. (Oh, that oily, pomaded part in the hair!) But unlike Heston, “moral gray area” has never been in Arnie’s acting arsenal. Ultimately, what’s meant to be his low-down, grimy version of Unforgiven feels like an unctuous way to prop up, rather than play around with, his popular persona as in The Last Stand or even in the otherwise lame Escape Plan.
Once the $10 million goes missing from its hiding spot, Wharton’s tight-knit special-ops team comes unraveled — unable to trust each other and under careful watch by D.C. muckity-mucks. “We’re not a team anymore, we’re just a gang,” says agent James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington) of those cooped up in a clubhouse that’s not too dissimilar from the crack dens they turn over.
A note about the team: They’re like dogs snapping at each other for one bone, with nicknames like Grinder, Neck, Sugar, Tripod, Pyro and Smoke. But as played by a passel of mostly TV actors (and one Oscar nominee whose minimal presence makes him instantaneously suspicious) their attempts at hardassery are laughably overwrought, no more so than in Lizzy, the team’s sole female member, played by Mireille Enos (The Killing). Her fight-and-fuck edginess enhanced by a few too many sniffs of booger sugar, Lizzy never feels like an authentic danger, just a playhouse affectation. Same goes for the rest of the supporting cast. Then again, woe be unto anyone who has to work with lines like, “Some of us are gettin’ paid and the rest of us are just gettin’ dead.”
Eventually, this team’s resolutely zipped lips send the investigation into a dead end, and they’re cleared to resume their duties of destroying drug cartels. But on the eve of reinstatement, one of them is viciously murdered and a slaughter begins.
Staged like an unofficial Saw VIII, these dioramas of disembowelment seem to be the work of the Mexican cartel from whom the team took the money. But maybe it’s one of their own trying to find, and take, the missing moolah for themselves. Yanked into this hurly-burly to “rain on the bro-down” is Atlanta homicide detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), who’s investigating the agents’ slayings and whose sidling-up to Wharton may be its own manipulative play. (Set aside the British Williams’ wobbly accent, or how the finale junks her smarts altogether, and enjoy her swampland Sigourney Weaver turn — tough, sexy and authentic.)
The screenplay by Ayer and Skip Woods doesn’t so much leave breadcrumbs as it does entire loaves. And so eager is this movie to wallow in the trough that even a nasty pre-credits prologue reveals information better left until later to elevate suspense or introduce the idea of unreliable narration. Perhaps Ayer, who’s had a hand in eight cop movies now, has simply run out of interesting yarns to spin, and his rumbleseat, you-are-there direction of action — so integral to End of Watch — lazily rests on first-person shooter perspectives.
If there’s any inventiveness, it’s in the over-the-top irreverence of the violence, easily the most graphic of any film Schwarzenegger has made over the last 32 years and legitimately shocking in ways the story itself is not. Bodies aren’t just riddled with bullets. They’re reduced to slabs of crinkled fat and flesh as squibs explode like soft fruit under Gallagher’s hammer. And it’s not just dealers and dirty cops. Innocent motorists and bicyclists get splattered, too.
Unfortunately, this particularly long trail of dead does nothing to enliven Schwarzenegger’s comeback bid. Were it not for the point-blank domings, its Mexican-cantina finale could easily pass for a Jimmy Kimmel spoof. It’s a big misstep for Arnie and a Dutch (or is that Austrian?) oven from which there is little relief.