I missed Sabotage when it first hit theaters. It falls into that sort of no-man’s land of films that may or may not qualify as “genre,” and coupled with scathingly negative word-of-mouth, we weren’t too put out to see it pass on by. The recent Blu-ray release has given us a second chance to take a look, colored by its dismal Rotten Tomatoes rating and a paltry worldwide box office gross of $17 million (less than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s salary back in the day). It’s not what you’d call a good movie – many of the criticisms leveled against it are justified – but it’s not nearly as bad as you may think.
And no small part of that comes due to its star. I’m not talking about Anrold, though he does quite well for himself. He plays the head of the DEA’s chief undercover squad: a gang of hardcore thugs just one step up from the criminals they hunt. They plan to abscond with $10 million seized during a raid, only to find the money gone when they come back for it. Shortly thereafter, members of the team begin turning up dead in ghastly ways, suggesting that the money’s original owners want a return with interest. Could they be behind it? Or does the culprit lie somewhere inside the unit’s own ranks?
Schwarzenegger always had a good eye for roles that work for him, and this one is no exception. He’s grizzled, scarred and rough around the edges, but his authority comes without question as he and his team get to the bottom of the mystery. That’s to be expected. Far less expected is the way co-star Olivia Williams sweeps right in and walks off with the show. She plays a no-nonsense homicide detective assigned to the case, and quickly spots the signs of deceit around the edges of the scenario. The character has done her time in the boys’ club and learned exactly how to respond to macho bullshit. Not a lot of people can successfully woof at Schwarzenegger and make it stick, but Williams manages the task handily.
With her onboard, Sabotage escapes the worst of its problems. Unfortunately, there are still too many to let pass unnoticed. Director David Ayer has the right intensity and a narrative that works, but he can’t find the pacing to deliver it properly. The narrative develops at a snail’s pace, with a fair number of side-tracks and cul-de-sacs before it finally snaps into place. The big reveal is similarly muddled, almost an afterthought at points, and Ayer insists on peppering it all with deliberately crude and vulgar dialogue. I’m a big fan of curse words – I use plenty myself – but here, it becomes a shock tactics covering up for a lack of stronger writing. That’s a shame, because the script carries a few zingers here and there that deserved some real company. (The violence is quite intense too, though considering Ayer’s other work, it’s not too surprising.)
The end result is certainly a mixed bag, especially when it all falls apart at the climax. Two alternate endings can be found on the Blu-ray, once of which works much better than the one that eventually made it onto the screen. More importantly, they suggest a lack of confidence in the material and a fair amount of confusion right up until the end. A story like this requires more care to successfully make it hum.
Even so, Sabotage finds a way to keep us interested, and even guessing at the outcome from time to time. Ayer’s street smarts play out in one-of-a-kind ways, and he has the right instincts to handle this kind of material. Missteps cost Sabotage a great deal, but considering the level of vitriol leveled against it, I was braced for a complete gobbler. It improves upon its reputation: not enough to recommend it, but worthwhile enough for old-school cop movie fans to glean a few delights here and there. The Blu-ray includes a few deleted scenes and a making-of documentary, along with the alternate endings. A purchase may be asking too much, but if you’re bored and need some old-school Arnold delivered in a new way, Sabotage won’t entirely let you down.