Thursday, July 24, 2014

Movie Review: Sabotage

Directed by: David Ayer.
Written by: Skip Woods and David Ayer.
Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger (John 'Breacher' Wharton), Sam Worthington (James 'Monster' Murray), Joe Manganiello (Joe 'Grinder' Phillips), Josh Holloway (Eddie 'Neck' Jordan), Terrence Howard (Julius 'Sugar' Edmonds), Max Martini (Tom 'Pyro' Roberts), Kevin Vance (Bryce 'Tripod' McNeely), Mark Schlegel ('Smoke' Jennings), Mireille Enos (Lizzy Murray), Maurice Compte (Sapo), Martin Donovan (Floyd Demel), Michael Monks (ASAC Phelps).

Writer-director David Ayer has made his career making mainly violent movies cops on the front lines – fighting against gangs, drug dealers and other very, very bad people. Often the cops themselves are just as corrupt as those they are trying to take down. At their best – as in his screenplays for Training Day (2001) or the underrated Dark Blue (2002), and his last directorial effort End of Watch (2012) the films are gritty, violent, exciting, well directed, well written and well-acted. And then there are his other movies – where things never quite come together. Films like Street Kings (2008), and his latest Sabotage, which seems like they should have promise, but somehow never quite reach their potential.

The film opens with a group of DEA officers, led by John “Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) as the storm a drug house and kill everyone they come in contact with. And then they find the money – and curiously, they stop. They grab some of the money, and put it into baggies and send them down into the sewer so they can pick it up later. Not everything goes according to plan, they lose one of their own, and somehow the higher ups know that $10 million is missing from the money pile they found (even though they blew it up). They cannot prove anything though – and after a few months, the team is working together again. But they don’t trust each other – the money disappeared before they could go back for it. And then, one by one, they start dying. Is the Cartel after them? Or is it someone closer?

If Ayer knows how to write one thing it’s masculine, male bonding that come dangerously close to homoeroticism (he did, after all, write the original The Fast and the Furious). He has never had much success is writing believable female characters – and the two major female characters in Sabotage are good case studies as to why that is. Mireille Enos delivers perhaps the best performance in the movie as Lizzy –the lone female member of Schwarzenegger’s DEA hit squad – and yet her main personality trait seems to be that she’s the biggest asshole of them all. Olivia Williams plays a DC cop who catches the case of the DEA murder, and continues investigating even when it becomes clear that the DEA itself won’t help her – and don’t much care that the team they thought was dirty is ending up dead. Arnold’s Breacher does though, so they team up. It would not surprise me to find out that the role was written for a man, and they just decided to switch it to a woman late in the process – it feels like it was written exactly the same as the male roles in this movie – right down to the not so buried sexual tension between her and Arnold.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but feel something was missing. For the most part, the cast is made up of talented – or at the very least interesting actors – but none of them are given anything interesting to do, or even any real character traits that differentiate them from each other – they’re all muscle bound, tattooed buffoons who take way too long before they start really understanding what the hell is going on in the plot. I learned, after watching the film that apparently the original cut of the film was closer to three hours, and was edited down to its current runtime (just under 2 hours) at the behest of the studio who wanted it to be an all-out action film, rather than the mystery film Ayer wanted. Perhaps the longer version was a better film – a more complete one – as I certainly did get the impression on more than one occasion while watching Sabotage that there were whole scenes and sequences missing – as we moved from one place to another with an awkward transition that didn’t work. Yet, I cannot imagine that an additional hour would have solved all of the films problems – and would have certainly made the film slower. If Sabotage has anything going for it, it’s that it never stops moving, it goes from one action sequence to another without slowing down. And Ayer does know how to film these scenes – not an exciting but bloodless way of a PG-13 movie, but in a more brutal, bloody R-rated way.

For Schwarzenegger, this is an interesting choice – it’s a much darker character than he usually plays, even if he isn’t quite the bad guy either (had they included the alternate ending that is one the Blu-Ray – which crosses the line between exciting action, and misogyny, so good call on cutting it, he would have). In some ways, I almost think that this was an attempt to do something more serious – the final scene seems to want to evoke Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, even if the film in no way earns that sort of ending. Based on his work here, and in last year’s The Last Stand, I think Arnold can still be an action star. He does need to find some better screenplays though. Sabotage has some good action in it – but everything around the action either doesn’t make sense, or is just plain bad.

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