Starring- Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, Terrence Howard, Max Martini, Kevin Vance, Mark Schlegel, Mireille Enos, Olivia Williams, Harold Perrineau
Director- David Ayer
R- strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use
I didn’t really think I’d end up feeling conflicted about Sabotage — and frankly, I didn’t want to be. The easiest thing to do would be to join up with the critical consensus that Sabotage is vile, ugly, mean-spirited, cruel, overly macho, philosophically confused, and generally immoral — and that consensus definitely isn’t wrong.
But…I don’t think that quite covers it, and it might even be unfair to the film. It’s definitely a thankless job to have to defend Sabotage a little — especially since I have a long history of being uncomfortable about cinematic violence a long time before a lot of other reviewers do. Not to mention that it definitely isn’t a good movie, and there’s still plenty of stuff in it that sets my moral sirens to blaring; it’s just not always the stuff everybody says it is.
I think the problem may be that everybody assessed it as an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie and went to it having already decided to view everything that happens in it through the lens of a film that’s only trying to entertain you. Of course it’s going to come off as wildly immoral if you do that. What we should have done, maybe, is go into it thinking of it as a David Ayer movie — as a director, he’s no guarantee that the movie will be great or even good, and Sabotage is certainly proof, but it is nearly a guarantee that it will at least have something on its mind.
My point, in short, is that I think there just might be a method to Sabotage’s madness, but that depends entirely on how much benefit of the doubt I want to extend to it, and I haven’t managed to decide yet.
“Breacher” Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the leader of an undercover DEA squads that specializes in the rough stuff, busting up one cartel after another. During one mission, $10 million goes missing, and Breacher and his team are suspected of having stolen it. No one can make the charges stick, however, and less than a year later, the team is back on active duty.
That’s when someone starts picking off its members one by one. As paranoia sets in and the survivors hunker down and prepare for Armageddon, they begin to suspect this isn’t the work of the cartels after all — one of their own is a traitor and out for blood.
I’ll start with the stuff I’m not conflicted about at all and work my way down from there — Sabotage isn’t a good movie, and I’m not telling you to go see it. It struggles with wonky dialogue and incredibly forced banter; the chemistry between the members of the team never really clicks; the film sets up a lot of plot points and either forgets about them or resolves them so quickly you wonder why they were ever introduced in the first place; and so on.
There’s good stuff, too — Ayer directs it with suitable aplomb, budgets the plot twists fairly well, and even somehow coaxes an unironically decent performance out of the Governator.
Where the movie has drawn particular critical ire is in its perceived immorality, and I’ll say this much — the critics are right on at least one point, and that’s its naked (often literally) misogyny. This is not a film that treats its female characters particularly well. This is a movie where the strip club scene is actually the least of its problems — it might dwell on the dancers overmuch in a way that becomes a touch problematic, but at least that scene says something important about its characters and can be forgiven on that level.
Somewhat less forgivable is the lesbian sex scene in the beginning that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with anything else and actually extends what’s going on past its useful life. There’s also the scene during a shootout in an apartment where one of the cartel members grabs a female hostage…who is in her underwear, for some reason. There are only two female characters of note: Mireille Enos’s gun-crazy team member, who happily goes to the strip club with the guys and even gets up on the pole and whose most useful role is seducing bad guys, something she also appears to enjoy very much; and Olivia Williams’ interceding FBI agent, who’s a much better character, so of course the film needs to arbitrarily get her naked and have her exploited sexually.
Basically, Sabotage’s treatment of women is enough for me to condemn it even if everything else went swimmingly. It’s not pervasive and in-your-face about it, but that almost makes it worse — that the film seems not even to be aware that it’s doing this.
But what most critics have honed in on is the violence. Ordinarily, I’d be right there with them — in fact, I’m usually there long before them. So, it’s weird that I’d part ways with them on what is probably the most violent movie of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career. Sure, I’ll confess that there is way more violence in this movie than there needs to be — it seems like it’s trying to beat The Walking Dead for the title of “Most Ridiculously Violent Pop Cultural Property,” and it falls into the exact same trap, where it exposes you to so much blood and gore that, eventually, it stops meaning anything. However, I don’t think Sabotage is condoning all this violence, and in fact, I think it’s turning it around into something that could actually be construed as positive. This is where I get conflicted about this movie — for all the sexism and everything else that goes wrong about Sabotage, there is a thematic throughline here that I think is surprisingly well done and makes an alarming amount of sense within the context of the film.
Critics have said that the “heroes” of this film are totally unlikable — loathsome, sexist, sociopathic murderers. I totally agree with them. Here’s the thing — I think David Ayer would, too. I think viewers are trying to impose the usual Schwarzenegger dynamic onto this team — something like Predator or The Expendables — and resist when they find they can’t like these guys. You won’t get anywhere doing that. If you interpret these characters as purposefully unlikable, the context of the entire movie changes. And I’m not interpreting them that way because it makes me feel better about everything but because the movie gave me plenty of contextual cues that compelled me to do so. These characters don’t get away with it. Their actions are shown to do actual damage. There’s no reward for what they do, and plenty of punishment.
Plus, look at how the DEA is portrayed — a self-defending, closed-off institution impeding the activities of the more unambiguously heroic figures in the other law enforcement branches, the ones who are primarily concerned with combating murder and theft rather than drug use. We see corruption at every level, folding in on itself until what we’re left with is an organization that exists mainly unto itself. Now, look at Breacher’s team within that context — killing people is what they do for fun, and they spend the rest of their time throwing their weight around for special privileges. It’s not hard to draw that line — I think Sabotage is a sneaky anti-drug-war movie. Of course Breacher’s guys are selfish and murderous — when you ask someone to risk their lives and kill to stop somebody else from getting high, how many heroes are you expecting to answer that call? You’re going to get guys who are only in it for the money, you’re going to get guys who just want the license to kill somebody, and maybe then you’ll get a small handful of actual heroes to pepper in there. The result, rather inevitably, is what happens here — someone’s selfishness overpowers the team dynamic, and suddenly, they’re paranoid, at each other’s throats, and trying to kill each other. It’s something of a simplistic take within the context of reality, but you can see how the ultimate message of the film is one that condemns violence — at least, the loose, easy kind that usually characterizes Arnold Schwarzenegger movies.
I think the movie even criticizes the excessive masculinity that upset so many critics. Breacher’s wife and son have been tortured to death by a cartel prior to the start of the film, and he’s out for revenge. Throughout the movie, we see him watching the video of their torture sessions the cartel sends him; critics have interpreted this as him reminding himself what he’s fighting for, that he feels as though he has to stare into the abyss until he becomes one with it. I agree with that interpretation; I disagree with where they go with it. What I’ve read most often is that the film embraces this, that it suggests the nature of being a man is numbing one’s emotions and conscience so that you can do what must be done. I don’t think that’s what the movie’s saying at all. It’s quite the opposite. I can’t say why without spoiling major plot developments, but to those critics, I would simply say…watch the movie again. Pay attention to everything that happens as a result of Breacher doing this. Viewed in that light, it’s impossible for me to interpret what he does as a good or noble thing — not just for me, but for the film.
I don’t really know why I’m defending Sabotage. Maybe it’s because those undercurrents are executed well enough to make me actually kind of enjoy it a little, or at least find it compelling — it’s not fun, though I’m not 100 percent sure it wants to be. Ayer does have a tendency to want to make art and an action movie at the same time, and those instincts can sometimes come into conflict. They do here.
But if something has merit, it’s worth discussing. I think Sabotage has some overlooked merit. It’s nowhere near enough to want to wade through the disgusting sexism and general badness of the thing, but if we’re going to talk about it, let’s at least talk about all of it.