Friday, April 4, 2014

SABOTAGE Is Flawed But Sporadically Awesome


- I was really stoked for SABOTAGE. Even if Arnold Schwarzenegger's post-political career action films have mostly been met with lukewarm reactions at the box-office, I've highly enjoyed his late-period work. Most notably, The Last Stand was one hell of an action/comedy, and deserves to go down as a must-see in the Ahnold cannon. That said, part of me was itching for the Governator to get really dark and hardcore, and do the kind of gritty action flick that that was less about well-timed quips and more about the serious kicking of ass. Enter David Ayers, who wrote Training Day, and who really impressed me last year as a director, with his excellent film End of Watch. Ayers and Arnold seemed like a match made in heaven for action fans, and the mixture does indeed yield very interesting results. Here's the thing: SABOTAGE is an uneven film, but it's still a must-see for Schwarzenegger fans, because it has some absolutely classic Ahnold moments. So while the movie may have some plot issues, I still recommend giving it a look. The kickass factor ultimately outweighs the flaws.

The film deals with a tight-knit squad of DEA agents, that was disbanded after accusations that they'd stolen money from a crime scene. The leader and father-figure of the squad - Schwarzenegger's Breacher - is a DEA legend, but he's also a haunted man. Prior to his team's breakup, his wife and son were kidnapped, tortured, and ultimately killed by one of the cartels. This made Breacher more driven than ever, and kept him determined to reunite his team and get back in the field following an internal investigation. The film deals with the tricky family dynamics of the reunited team, which slowly begins to unravel, even as Breacher tries to keep the peace. Meanwhile, the ongoing mystery of the film revolves around what actually happened to the stolen money. Who - if anyone - from the team took it, and why? This mystery rises to the forefront as an unknown group of assailants begins targeting Breacher's team, taking out its members one by one. As the FBI is brought in to investigate, the mystery deepens and the true nature of what's going on is ultimately revealed.

There are some really compelling mysteries here, and some really fun characters at the center of the story. The problem is that while the movie has cool characters, a stellar cast, and some top-notch action, it never quite overcomes some root problems that likely stem from the script. Namely, the structure of the film just feels off. The movie kicks off with a thrilling flashback sequence that shows us the mission that initiated the stolen-money mystery, and then flashes to the present, when the band gets back together. But as the movie progresses, a couple of problems become evident. One is that we're never given any real clues as to who stole the money, or any real possible motivations to latch onto. In a movie like this, everyone should be a suspect. But really, no one feels like a suspect, and we really have no clue as to who might be waging a war against the squad, other than the cartels. And so, when we finally do get the truth about who stole the money, and who the true Big Bads of the movie are, the revelations are mostly duds, and very-much out of left field. Nothing we'd seen up to that point adds up to a true "aha!" moment. That's one problem. The other biggie is that what seems like the movie's most compelling plot point - the fact that Breacher's family was murdered by the same cartels he's spent his life hunting - is inexplicably pushed to the background for most of the movie. While we are getting some decent-if-not-breathtaking procedural-style drama, it feels like the true, potentially awesome movie that we *should* be watching lies buried underneath. That movie, of course, is a grizzled Arnold recruiting his old squad to hunt down the bastards that killed his family - Rolling Thunder-style. And for a bit, it seems like that's where all of this is going. But for some reason, that surefire badassery is shunted in favor of a more sedate crime story / mystery ... and it's not the wisest or most effective of choices.

CAVEAT: Everything I just said is almost, *almost* negated by the movie's absolutely friggin' awesome last ten minutes. Without spoiling anything, the film's final sequence is so badass that it pretty much elevates the entire film. Only problem is that its awesomeness makes you wonder what a whole movie operating at that level could have been like. Suffice it to say, it's Arnold's Clint Eastwood-in-Unforgiven moment, and holy lord, it rocks.

Now, SABOTAGE isn't just a Schwarzenegger movie - the cast, as I said, is stacked with an overwhelmingly talented cast. Arnold's team is comprised of a mixture of genuine A-list stars like Terrence Howard, action movie staples like Sam Worthington (almost unrecognizable in his Fred Durst-esque nu-metal getup), ready-for-their-big-break TV talent like Lost's Josh Holloway and True Blood's Joe Manganiello, and up-and-comers like Pacific Rim's Max Martini. The scene-stealer, however, might be an actress (who for a while I assumed to be Jessica Chastain) named Mireille Enos, who plays team wildcard Lizzy. Enos is a redheaded ball of fire, taking down cartel members with secret agent-esque spy moves, Alias-style, when not causing friction on the team. In addition, Olivia Williams is quite good as the FBI agent tasked with solving the mystery of who is out to get the team. Her partner is played by Lost's Harold Perrineau, who's always solid, and, hey ... mini Lost reunion!

What is a bit odd is that some of the movie's best talents get very much lost in the shuffle. When you've got a Terrence Howard in the cast, you don't make him a second-stringer with minimal screen time. And when you've got a guy like Josh Holloway doing some really great work, it seems a slight waste to have him barely make an impact in the film, beyond one or two notable scenes. The core team is made up of such strong, charismatic actors that it seems odd when the movie eventually sort of falls in love with Williams and Perrineau's FBI agents. Not that they aren't really good, but again, it's an issue of the movie getting diverted from its core dynamics, and spending too much time on tangents. It almost feels like the FBI duo could have their own movie, and the more grounded, primetime drama tone of their scenes almost feels like it belongs to a different movie than the hardcore, slightly comic-booky, larger-than-life scenes that focus on Breacher's squad. I mean just look at the names of the people on the DEA team: Breacher, Monster, Sugar, Grinder, Pyro, Neck ... do those sound like the names of characters in a procedural investigation movie, or like those in a larger-than-life grindhouse revenge flick? 

Still, what I like about Ayers is that he goes all-in when it comes to making his films feel gritty and hardcore. SABOTAGE doesn't pull punches. It's violent, dark, grisly, and vulgar. It's overflowing with testosterone and isn't compromising in the name of appealing to a mainstream audience. When you watch an Ayers movie, you feel in need of a shower afterwards - he puts you there among these battle-hardened badasses and makes it clear that the world of the film is not one for the weak of heart. He's also one hell of an action director - he uses you-are-there aesthetics to really create a sense of immersion and intensity. Here, he also seems to have a lot of fun playing up the iconography of Arnold. While the movie is dark, it also isn't afraid to semi-playfully utilize Schwarzenegger's iconic stature to create some of the film's more over-the-top moments. And Arnold gives a pretty fantastic performance here, any way you slice it. While he's still got plenty of one-liners, he also seems to relish the chance to go a bit darker and grittier than he has of late. Joke if you like, but the dude pretty much kills it in this one. And once again ... those final ten minutes ... epic.

SABOTAGE is one of those films that I've got to recommend, simply because it's got some fantastic moments that any action fan will regret having missed. At the same time, it's a slightly frustrating movie in that it feels like all the elements were there to make a true action classic, if only they had come together in a slightly more impactful manner. 

My Grade: B

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