The script for SABOTAGE, by Skip Woods and David Ayer, is an absolute mess. Character motivations are all over the place, ideas are established that go nowhere, and once you pull at the thread of the plot after all is said and done, the fabric of the movie disintegrates at your fingers. There are paths laid out in the movie that seem far more interesting had the filmmakers decided to take them, and they needlessly complicate the story they do want to tell when they don't have to. At almost every turn, Woods and Ayer's script fumbles the material.
So why do I give SABOTAGE a pass? Because, even when the movie ties itself into needless knots, it's all very watchable. The action sequences are well shot, even when they begin to deny the laws of physics and strain credibility. The ensemble actors, including Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Josh Holloway, and Mireille Enos, rise to the challenge, giving us unique and memorable characters even when the script is undercutting their work (and, at the end, betrays their performances completely). Ayer uses fascinating editing techniques during some sequences, telling two stories from different time periods simultaneously. We see some crimes taking place, and we see characters examining those crimes afterwards, and how they comment on each other makes for interesting storytelling.
And then there is Arnold Schwarzenegger, who turns in, surprisingly, one of his most engaged and heartfelt performances. If the script didn't pull the rug out from under him multiple times in SABOTAGE, one could see his work here alongside movies like PREDATOR or the TERMINATOR films. John Wharton is a complicated man, full of moral ambiguity, struggling with his own demons, and Schwarzenegger takes this role and brings real passion and emotion to it. I don't know what the script looked like at the shooting stage, but it was enough to get Arnold fully invested in his performance here, and I really wish that the work he does was serviced by a better movie. There are some iconic moments that in a better movie would have Arnold fans stomping with glee, but by the time we get to them, the power of those moments has been undercut by sloppy storytelling. He even gets to throw around a few one-liners like the days of old.
Wharton, nicknamed "Breacher" by the rest of his group, is head of an elite squad of DEA agents who do the wetwork when it comes to taking down dangerous drug cartels. They aren't there to negotiate, but to kill every last person standing, and then go home and celebrate with booze, hookers, and for one of the team, even a bit of pill-popping. They play hard, but they seem to care for each other. Wharton considers them an extended family. During one mission, ten million dollars of drug money goes missing, and the team goes under investigation. The investigation turns up nothing, but when one of the team dies in what appears to be an accident, homicide investigator Caroline (Olivia Williams) begins to suspect that a cartel is gunning for Wharton and his team. Wharton, however, comes to believe that someone in the group is killing the others, and it all goes back to the missing ten million.
David Ayer shoots his action sequences with his customary skill - watching Wharton's team clear a room should satisfy many a CALL OF DUTY fan - but is very clumsy when it comes to giving the audience information as the plot progresses. There are motivations that are revealed in a very sloppy manner, and characters behave in random ways that seem to undercut what was already established in the movie. Even Schwarzenegger's Wharton is left hanging by the script, but it's Arnold's charisma and commitment to his performance that holds that aspect of the story together.
There is one chase sequence towards the end of the movie that by rights shouldn't even be taking place, and while it's shot well, makes no sense in the larger scheme of things. The story should be far more streamlined than this, and if Woods and Ayer's script had put all the cards on the table early without being so needlessly ambiguous, it would have made for a far more satisfying movie, especially when it comes to the ending. The end of SABOTAGE could be considered Arnold's UNFORGIVEN moment, if you want, but while Eastwood handles that moment with more grace, it's only Arnold's skills as an actor (yes, I wrote it) that hold the scene together. Arnold fans may be cheering, but they would be cheering so much more had these moments felt earned by the material.
SABOTAGE is a frustrating experience because you can see the better movie inside. And yet, there are many moments in SABOTAGE that I really enjoyed - it doesn't hold back on the gore, and Arnold using the word "fuck" multiple times in his badass way is always welcome. It's a movie that becomes confusing when it didn't need to be, and it remined me of how action movies are nowadays, needlessly complicating the story when a straighter path would have sufficed. All of the actors deserve a better movie than what they've been given here. I like David Ayer as a director, and I think his best film is still in him. SABOTAGE is an interesting failure, and there is a lot to appreciate in it, but in the end, the sum is much less than its parts.