With 2006's "Harsh Times," 2008's "Street Kings
," 2012's "End of Watch
," and now "Sabotage," writer-director David Ayer has the marketplace cornered for violent, gravelly action-dramas centering around law enforcement and the hazards that come with the profession. For his latest film, he and co-scribe Skip Woods (2013's "A Good Day to Die Hard
") do not cover all that much fresh territory, but the film commands attention by taking the material to its extremes. The outcome is unforgiving and buzzed with adrenaline, well aware of the moral corruption littering the landscape. This last point doesn't exactly help to ingratiate viewers to the thorny characters, but by the end it's a safe bet they aren't supposed to be liked.
When a sting operation to recover $10-million goes bad and leaves one of their own dead, an undercover DEA task force led by John 'Breacher' Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) become the prime suspects after the drug money goes missing. They are eventually cleared and put back into action just as the murders of a couple other agents heat up. Believed to be the work of the powerful Rios Scarza cartel, investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) is called onto the case as Breacher and his menamong them, James 'Monster' Murray (Sam Worthington) and addict wife Lizzy (Mireille Enos), smooth-talking Julius 'Sugar' Edmonds (Terrence Howard), and cornrowed Joe 'Grinder' Phillips (Joe Manganiello)realize they are fast becoming the hunted.
Breacher's team is something else, described as the best special ops around while spending their free time partying, verbally sparring and physically assaulting each other. When out on the field, they do not hesitate shooting to kill suspects they immediately discover afterwards aren't a part of the cartel they're searching for, while Lizzy freely imbibes in the liquid meth she finds on the scene. So, yes, they aren't the cuddliest of protagonists, and the fact that there are no repercussions for their misdoings stretches plausibility. As the story develops, however, it is apparent there are even hairier dealings going down amongst some of them. Watching them gradually dismantle and self-destruct as Breacher's own motives involving his late wife and son come into focus, "Sabotage" reveals itself to be fully aware of the ruined, sometimes innocent, lives left in the wake of criminal indiscretions. The eyes of the audience? That would be Catherine Brentwood, not fully aware with what she is getting mixed up. Olivia Williams (2011's "Hanna
") plays the role with alternating bravery and disbelief, able to hold her own"You are so in over your head you need more than a glock and sensible shoes," Lizzy cattily tells herwhile laying witness to the awful things people out for money and vengeance are capable.
Arnold Schwarzenegger (2013's "The Last Stand
") makes for a functional, cigar-chomping John 'Breacher' Wharton, well-suited for the part but so stoic he is never quite able to evoke the full scope of tragedy in Breacher's past. For such relatively underdeveloped characters, Sam Worthington (2012's "Wrath of the Titans
") and Joe Manganiello (2012's "Magic Mike
") make the most of their screen time, exuding an uncompromising machismo that serves them well for their line of work but could just as easily be a trait exemplified by bad guys gone rogue. By comparison, Terrence Howard (2013's "Prisoners
") has arguably less to do and brings nothing to the picture; either his performance was botched in the editing room, or he wasn't even trying. That leaves the striking Mireille Enos (2013's "World War Z
") to toss all her co-stars in the backseat as she runs away with the outspoken, inwardly tortured Lizzy. Enos' turn is fearless in the way she disappears into the skin of a woman who has begun to lose herself in the very drugs she fights.
"Sabotage" is unapologetically brutal and not for the squeamish, a hard-boiled action movie of the hard-R variety. Difficult to warm up to but ultimately compelling as the second half ups the double-dealing, carnage-spewing ante, the film lacks the warmth of, for example, the grounded romantic subplot between Jake Gyllenhaal and Anna Kendrick in "End of Watch
," yet also avoids that pic's sappy conclusion. There is nothing maudlin about "Sabotage," and Breacher and Brentwood's perilous, potentially sacrificial journeys join them early on while finally driving them in remarkably different directions. For Brentwood, she just wants to do her job, and do it well. For the grieving, outraged Breacher, he makes the decision to pass the point of no return and never looks back. Following him to this personal crossroads and beyond is absorbingly detailed by director David Ayer, bringing seat-jolting tension and savagery to the otherwise subjectively familiar.