Review: Schwarzenegger leads a rowdy ensemble in the crazy sleazy action film ‘Sabotage’

From the moment “Sabotage” begins, it's obvious that David Ayer has something nasty in mind, but it's only once you've settled in and spent some time with it that the truly sleazy heart of “Sabotage” becomes clear. This is a movie set in a world where everyone is a giant piece of garbage, and even the ostensible hero of the movie is a horrible person, corrupt and broken and incapable of recognizing justice, much less dispensing it.

Ayer took a Skip Woods action script and turned it into something more distasteful, and I mean that with all due affection. This feels like the '80s action films where established icons suddenly showed up in these genuinely dirty movies, graphic simply for the sake of being graphic. “10 To Midnight” and “Tightrope” are two films that immediately jumped to mind when I saw this, or Stallone's “Nighthawks” or “Cobra.” In this, Schwarzenegger stars as John Wharton, a badass DEA officer who leads a badass DEA strike team. He's earned the nickname Breacher because of how many impossible places they've taken down, and he's managed to build himself this totally fearless and insane group of human weapons. When something happens to Breacher that tests his faith in the job he's given his life to, he proposes a payday to his crew, and they put together a plan to steal a pile of cartel cash during a raid.

They take the money, but before they can claim it, someone else steals it from all of them, and it ends up not only driving a wedge into the carefully-constructed trust required for the strike team to be effective, but it also casts suspicion on them from the rest of the DEA, destroying the reputation they've built. They don't get the money, they don't have respect anymore, and there's an ongoing investigation that benches Breacher. It seems like a hopeless place to start a movie and, to be fair, it is. “Sabotage” is not the story of a wrongly-persecuted strike team proving their worth and their integrity through a righteous mission against a truly loathsome enemy. Instead, it's a movie about a violent band of assholes who makes bad choices that begin to eat away at everything in their world as they just keep making it worse.

That's a really unusual and different take on what we expect from “an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie,” and to his credit, he's been doing that since he returned to acting. “Escape Plan” is a terrible movie, but it's a terrible movie that feels like I can at least understand why he thought it might work. “The Last Stand” is a really fun and slick little crime story. It's of no real consequence, but man, it's well-made, and Arnold seems to be comfortable playing his age. Here, I was worried that the film was too heavy, that he wouldn't be up to playing this character who is a little bit John-Wayne-in-“The-Searchers,” a little bit Vic-Mackey-from-“The-Shield,” but over the course of the entire film, he does a nice job of showing us how he wears this mask of the action hero we expect over a broken, hollowed-out soul. It's a nicely nuanced performance in the midst of some epic, off-the-charts scenery chewing, and it proves to be the right choice for Schwarzenegger.

His strike team is made up of actors who are all cranked up to eleven, all playing these big, brash badass characters who count of this sort of hyper-macho image to be part of what keeps them safe when they're working. They all seem crazy. It seems like you'd have to be an idiot to screw with any of them, and all of them together? It's a storm no one would invite into their life. Joe Manganiello is Grinder, Josh Holloway plays Neck, Terrence Howard is Sugar, Max Martini is Pyro, and Sam Worthington and Mireille Enos play Monster and Lizzy, the husband/wife team who round out Breacher's team. Every single one of them acts like they are out of their heads all the time, a constant game of “who has the biggest d**k, with Enos frequently the winner of the contest. Watching the scenes where Arnold has to be the alpha in that room, with all of these people throwing attitude for all they're worth, is part of the pleasure of “Sabotage,” and watching them turn on each other as whoever took the money also starts killing the squad members in order to guarantee they'll be the only ones claiming a share is grim and hyper-violent stuff.

I think this is probably the most natural Worthington's every been on film, and it's interesting seeing him play scenes with Arnold after the weird “Terminator Salvation” moments from the end of that film. In general, it feels like Ayer's been getting better with actors with each film, and while there are plenty of elements of “Sabotage” that feel half-baked or overly familiar, there's an energy to it that is ultimately very persuasive. Olivia Williams shows up as a cop who is investigating the murders of the various members of Arnold's squad, and she makes an interesting foil for Schwarzenegger. There's a great sense of rot to everything as shot by Bruce McCleery, and David Sardy's score is propulsive and appropriately caustic. What ultimately works about “Sabotage” is the way it so unabashedly plays rough. If you're going to tell a story like this, you can't do it halfway. You've got to give it up to a film that is so deeply uninterested in trying to make the leads into decent people, and to Schwarzenegger for being willing to shake up his own image so thoroughly at a time where he could easily just be coasting.

“Sabotage” opens everywhere today.