In writer-director David Ayer’s last law-enforcement drama, the remarkable “End of Watch,” there wasn’t a moment that didn’t feel lived-in and true. The same cannot be said of Ayer’s “Sabotage,” a gruesome and frequently preposterous B-grade actioner about an elite team of DEA agents who run afoul of a ruthless Mexican cartel — and each other. That the team’s battle-scarred leader is played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in the best and most substantial of his post-Governator comeback roles, gives a mild kick to this otherwise strained attempt at a latter-day “Wild Bunch” or “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” updated to the mean streets of metro Atlanta. Likely to repel even some of the hard-R action crowd with its intentionally scuzzy milieu and lack of a rooting interest, this $35 million Open Road release will be hard-pressed to top sleeper hit “End of Watch’s” $41 million domestic haul.
As with a lot of action stars, the repose of late middle age becomes Schwarzenegger, whose face is now as lined as the veins on his still-bulging muscles, and who has the heavy gait of a warrior who no longer quite so easily carries his girth, a Terminator stiffened by age into a Tin Man. He’s well cast here in something of a tailor-made part as John “Breacher” Wharton, a storied veteran of the drug wars whose work has taken its toll on his personal life in particularly brutal fashion. And if Schwarzenegger never had to say very much on screen to impart a sense of wry, steely menace, the years have only sharpened his take-no-prisoners scowl into a kabuki-like mask. It may be stolen drug money that sets the lumbering plot of “Sabotage” in motion, but whenever Ayer holds on Breacher, signature stogie in hand (or mouth), staring off into the void, it’s clear that both the character and the actor playing him are chasing after something no amount of money can buy.
The rest of “Sabotage” rarely rises to Schwarzenegger’s level, in large measure because the other characters (of which there are far too many) aren’t nearly as sharply drawn by Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods (“Swordfish,” “The A-Team”). Of course, every Hollywood cop movie can be counted on for one or two of those disobedient mavericks who refuse to play by the rules, seed ulcers in the stomachs of their exasperated superiors and by-the-book partners, and who inevitably carry the day with their unorthodox methods. But in “Sabotage,” Breacher’s entire team is comprised of such eccentrics, who are so far out on a limb and so deep undercover that they make “Lethal Weapon’s” Martin Riggs and “True Detective’s” Rust Cohle seem model officers by comparison. (And Ayer, who likes putting his actors through elaborate physical transformations, has had the “Sabotage” cast collectively groomed to look like the first family of Better Homes and Meth Labs magazine.)
We first see Breacher’s team in action during a spectacularly violent raid on a cartel safe house that includes a money room stacked sky high with cold, hard cash. The agents have planned in advance to skim a little off the top — $10 million to be precise — which they ingeniously stash inside a sewer line. But when they return to the scene to collect, the loot has vanished, a single bullet left in its place as an unsubtle warning. Because the FBI happens to know just how much money was supposed to be in the house, Breacher and company are immediately put under suspicion and suspended from the job — a six-month stretch during which, it seems, the agents do nothing but lounge around their special-ops frat house growing ever more gauche and squalid.
Then, overnight, the investigation goes away (“Do you have a photo of a Congressman fucking a goat?” asks one of Breacher’s superiors, only half joking), the agents are reinstated and, one by one, begin dropping like flies in inventively grisly ways. Where last year’s cartel-crossing cautionary tale, “The Counselor,” gave us death by auto-retracting razor wire, “Sabotage” ups the ante with death by being nailed to the ceiling of your kitchen in a crucifixion pose.
Who is killing the great DEA agents of Atlanta? Well, the cartel is at the top of the suspect list, but then, so are the agents themselves — at least the ones who are still breathing. They include the volatile Lizzy (Mireille Enos), who’s a little too enthusiastic about her work (and taking it home with her); her husband and fellow agent, James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington, sporting a shaved head and braided goatee), though we have reason to suspect he’s neither the first or the last of Lizzy’s internal affairs; brooding bruiser Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello, in cornrows); and the relatively soft-spoken Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), so soft-spoken that it only makes him that much more suspicious. Someone somewhere has that $10 million, and someone wants it back.
Doggedly working the case despite the open hostility of everyone she questions is Atlanta homicide detective Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), whose name suggests a Los Angeles real estate agent but whose flinty demeanor is that of a determined career woman in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. And despite her stop-and-go Southern accent and the ease with which the script betrays her character’s intelligence, Williams is the other real bright spot of “Sabotage,” bringing a gravitas to her role and affecting a nice, fractious chemistry with Schwarzenegger in their scenes together — a reminder that Arnold has always been well served by tough, Hawksian women (Linda Hamilton, Jamie Lee Curtis, et al.)
Like Michael Mann, whose fascination with the world of criminals and law enforcement he shares, Ayer (who also wrote “Training Day”) is a detail fetishist who brings a lot of firsthand knowledge to his cinematic depictions of police work. But “Sabotage” jumps the shark early and often with its ever-thickening web of deceit, elaborately fabricated cover-ups and crucial evidence that, at one point, just happens to turn up on a flash drive left by some anonymous Good Samaritan on the seat of Williams’ car. By the time Atlanta devolves into a latter-day Dodge City for the movie’s bloody climax, it has become as outlandish as if aliens from the planet Asgard were tumbling down from the skies. (Which is to say nothing of the still-to-come Mexican coda.)
Even without first-person video-diary conceit of “End of Watch,” Ayer still shows a fascination here with the visual possibilities of lightweight video camera, as well as the contrasting textures of mixed-and-matched video stocks (with scenes that incorporate purported surveillance footage, police interrogation video, etc.). Technically, the pic is deceptively polished in its rough-and-ready pro-sumer way, especially the nimble handheld shooting of d.p. Bruce McCleery and the crisp, kinetic editing of Ridley Scott/Christopher Nolan veteran Dody Dorn.