Silver Screen: Sabotage **
It was probably inevitable that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to Hollywood would be disappointing. The short shelf life of an action-movie hero aside, in his prime Arnold was the biggest movie star on the planet, so much so that he parlayed his incredible success into governing his adopted home state and running the world’s fifth-largest economy. Barring a constitutional amendment to allow him to become the Presidenator, there was really nowhere to go but down.
Still, his return to the big screen has been particularly inauspicious. It’s not marked by oddball mistakes or catastrophic flops, but worse, projects that were easy to overlook and even easier to forget. His fairly brief appearances in the nostalgia ensemble cash-in Expendables series aside, he’s starred in two movies: the passable The Last Stand, and his long-awaited showdown with Sylvester Stallone, Escape Plan, a modestly enjoyable bit of fromage du cinema that arrived two decades too late.
Arnold’s legacy needs no burnishing, but he does the post-gubernatorial phase of his career no favors with yet another throwaway action movie he wouldn’t have touched in his heyday, Sabotage, a movie with a title so vague it actively defies you to remember it the next day.
Schwarzenegger stars as John “Breacher” Wharton, team leader of an elite squadron of former undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agents, all with nifty G.I. Joe nicknames. The team includes Neck (Josh Holloway), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Monster (Sam Worthington), and Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who doesn’t need a fancy nickname.
The obvious question: Exactly what group did the hulking, thickly accented Austrian go undercover to infiltrate? Perhaps he busted up a ring of bodybuilders planning to cheat on their citizenship exams?
In the opening sequence, Breacher’s team takes down a drug-cartel safehouse and then intentionally fudges the communications back to headquarters to buy themselves time while they steal $10 million and hide it in a drainpipe, then burn the rest of the money. When they return for their loot, however, they find the stash has been raided and replaced with a single bullet as a warning.
Though the team burned all the money and evidence, the Drug Enforcement Administration discovers that $10 million is missing and starts an internal-affairs investigation that effectively breaks up the squad. They’re ultimately cleared yet their reputation is tarnished. The suggestions of impropriety echo even more loudly when members of the team are bumped off in mysterious circumstances. Breacher vows to help a local detective (Olivia Williams) investigate the murders, but a dark secret from his past may hold the answers to the motives behind the killings.
Sabotage is briskly paced and action-packed enough to achieve the base-level entertainment goal of distraction, but it’s surprisingly shoddy. The Drug Enforcement Administration’s inexplicable knowledge of the missing money is one among a legion of lazy lapses of logic. When a major character is killed by a train, the police don’t bother to interview the conductor, whose testimony would clear up a lot of confusion. One character watches an interrogation interview video that has been edited to include multiple angles and dramatic cuts to reaction shots. Breacher’s crew is hilariously unaccountable to any oversight, and their more preposterous actions are uniformly written off by having Williams or her mostly absent partner (Harold Perrineau) shake their heads and say, “The Feds, huh?”
This silliness could be more easily dismissed in a frivolous actioneer like The Last Stand, but cowriter and director David Ayer at least feigns to be making a more serious movie. He conveys this level of seriousness by jam-packing the movie with what must be near-record levels of profanity and gore in an R-rated American feature film, lingering on gunshot wounds, torture, rapes, and— his favorite— piles of eviscerated organs. The extremity of the violence is a stand-in for actual intensity, which is sorely lacking.
He can do better. Ayer’s last outing, End of Watch, was a tense and engaging police drama that had real emotional heft. This bloody blitzkrieg is too grim to be pulpy fun but not nearly good enough to justify its own hyperbole.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.