Arnold Schwarzenegger’s newest film, Sabotage, is violent. Violent in a way that they rarely make ’em anymore. Violent in a way that only the star of The Terminator and Total Recall can get away with. Violent in a way that will turn off a not-insignificant portion of the audience. But those who are turned away will be missing out on the most mature and fully realized film that the Austrian titan has yet made.
Schwarzenegger plays the leader of an elite DEA strike team, who break down the doors of major drug cartels with military precision. But they’re also crooked as hell, and when an attempt to rip off a cartel goes wrong, they find themselves dying one by one and with nobody to trust. An impressive collection of talent is on hand as the DEA agents – Josh Holloway, Terence Howard, Sam Worthington, and Max Martini are present – while Olivia Williams and Harold Perrineau are the Atlanta cops tasked with solving the murders.
Yet, amongst all of those names, the actors who impress the most are the most unknown: Joe Manganiello (True Blood) and Mirelle Enos (The Killing, Big Love) are the liveliest members of the cast. Manganiello seems the only member of the DEA team who isn’t afraid of Arnold, either in character or in real life (being a foot taller and in equally phenomenal shape probably helps). Meanwhile, Enos’ crazed, drug-addled, wildly sexual performance is the most pointed indicator of how corrupted the team has become.
Director David Ayer probably deserves better than to be dismissed as merely “the director of the next Schwarzenegger film,” for he’s found ways to innovate visually within the borders of the gun-heavy action picture. He employs the gun-barrel cam and other digital-video techniques from his last film, End of Watch, as well as angles and tricks designed to enhance the claustrophobia of the action scenes. Many of this team’s missions involve breaking down a door and charging into a small room containing men armed with machine guns; Ayer finds new and interesting ways to make that situation tense.
The screenplay by Ayer and Skip Woods doesn’t make complete sense; the killers find a couple of their toughest targets without reasonable explanation. But they understand perfectly how to use an aging Schwarzenegger: as a foil to characters whom he himself might have played when he was younger. In that way, this film is a response to Unforgiven, as Arnold acknowledges that the unstoppable-killing-machine characters that he started out with can’t continue their idyllic cartoon existences into old age.
The other members of the DEA team are playing characters who grew up watching movies like Arnold’s and have absorbed their machismo and their tendency toward vigilante justice. They’re fighting a war on drugs which, inspired by those 1980s films, has grown increasingly militarized. It has turned these cops into corrupt, empathy-free monsters, who equate delivering lead with delivering justice while they wait for the cartel’s hammer to full upon them. It’s a bracing approach to a Schwarzenegger picture, and one which should inspire excitement for the next few years of his lengthy career.