It’s clear that David Ayer’s Sabotage isn’t exactly Serpico long before Joe Manganiello’s Grinder accuses himself and his team of “fingering the devil’s pussy.” The hyperbole, however, is warranted, as the elite DEA tactical team that Grinder works with, led by the legendary Breacher (Arnold Schwarzenegger), is getting picked off one by one in seeming retribution for skimming $10 million from a drug cartel bust. Things start grimly, with Breacher watching footage of his wife’s torture and death, but Ayer’s latest quickly drums up ample “humor” through the pervasiveness of the characters’ homophobia and dick talk.
From these less-than-auspicious beginnings, one might expect a run-of-the-mill swinging-dick actioner, but Sabotage is a beast of another sort. For one, there’s no central villain to speak of and the story eventually evolves into a bizarre whodunit. There’s talk of an elusive, high-grade Guatemalan hit squad hired to take out the team, which is composed of dudes with nicknames like Monster (Sam Worthington), Sugar (Terrence Howard), and Neck (Josh Holloway), but this rival squad proves to be a red herring. As the grisly murders start racking up, the film begins taking cues from popular horror (primarily the Saw and Final Destination franchises) by centering scenes on the improbability and inventiveness of the killing style. One of Breacher’s men is found nailed to his ceiling, his guts ripped out and hanging like streamers, and another good ol’ boy meets his end by getting hit by a train…while relieving himself in his Winnebago’s sink.
This modest flair for the grotesque gives Sabotage an agreeable sense of macabre levity, one helped amply by the fact that Ayer never feigns any sort of moralism or condescends to “family values.” The writer-director has the good sense to generally avoid portraying these piggish brutes as heroes or role models of any sort, which was decidedly not the case with his previous film, End of Watch. Olivia Williams proves vital to this pursuit in the role of Caroline, a local detective, by playing up how comical her no-bull caricature is and making her characters’ barbs against the team’s alpha-male posturing really sing. The character of Lizzy, Monster’s wife and the sole female member of the unit, is similarly elevated by Mireille Enos’s willingness to go full tilt into what ends up being the film’s most preposterous role.
But the fact that Caroline inexplicably beds a team member speaks to the film’s attitude toward women: that they’re to be used or protected, and never trusted. If the backstory-laden script consistently hints at self-awareness, that sense of knowingness is irrefutably cancelled out by the plain-faced aesthetic and much of the cast’s general ambivalence. The dialogue, with its tonnage of off-putting one-liners, has a certain style, but the film defers to an atmosphere of fake urgency brought out by the standard-issue digital photography. There’s no sense of visual artifice to match the ludicrous pitch of the script, and subsequently, the film comes off as awkward and uncertain. And these matters are only made worse by the fact that the film is anchored to Schwarzenegger, who’s at once too big of a presence and too little of a talent to pull-off Breacher’s gruff cynicism. The supporting players are convincing enough but largely inconsequential, an odd byproduct of which is that the female performances are the most memorable elements of the movie. It’s a fitting irony after all the crude flexing Sabotage indulges in, but it’s not a purposeful act by the director and paltry in comparison to the film’s cock-of-the-walk excesses.