Review: Sabotage (2014)

The first thing we see in Sabotage, the DEA actioner from Fury and End of Watch writer/director David Ayer, is footage of a woman being tortured by a Mexican cartel. Soon enough we find out that this woman was the wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s John “Breacher” Wharton, and that the cartel sent him the video and killed her because of what he did on the job. The video is a nasty thing to watch, and the film goes on to show another 108 minutes of nastiness that compound the nauseating effect of the violence. Sabotage isn’t just bad. It’s downright repugnant.

The film’s main plotline follows Breacher’s team of DEA macho meatheads as they try to find out who’s killing them off one-by-one. They think the killings have to do with the 10 million dollars they stole from the cartel in an early scene, but they don’t know if it’s the cartel targeting them or someone else. Inevitably, Breacher starts to put the pieces together, getting to the bottom of the case by brutalizing scores of admittedly awful people.

Sabotage’s cast is an unlikely collection of famous character actors and former A-listers: Sam Worthington, Mireille Enos, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Josh Holloway, and, of course, the Schwarzenegger himself. I like most or all of these actors, but the characters are composed so as to take away this likeability. They’re rah-rah macho in a distasteful way. Sexually harassing women and cracking skulls is what these guys do for fun.

Sabotage is both sexist and obscenely violent. The sexist stuff has to do with how it treats its two female characters: Mireille Enos’ crackhead team member, and Olivia Williams’ no-nonsense detective. Enos’ is just-one-of-the-guys, enjoying dick jokes and going to strip clubs—a “cool girl” in Gone Girl parlance. She even gets up on the pole in one ludicrous scene, dancing in the background of the frame for everyone’s enjoyment. According to the film, the only traits that make her a woman are her breasts and genitals, which allow the team to use her as sexual bait for cartel baddies, as demonstrated in one of the opening scenes. She doesn’t seem to mind. In fact, she seems to enjoy it, because that’s badass, right, bro?

Williams’ Detective Brentwood, on the other hand, is the exact opposite of Enos’ Lizzy, but she’s ultimately no more of an individual, and no less sexist a creation. She tries her best to get to the bottom of the case, but she’s hopelessly out of her depths and Schwarzenegger condescends to her at every turn. He even tricks her into sleeping with him so he can give her bad info. How romantic. There’s a reason Ayer’s best films, End of Watch and Fury, are out-and-out men’s pictures. He’s pretty good at giving rough dudes complexity, but he’s terrible at writing women as their own individuals. He can’t get inside their head and seems convinced that writing a “strong female character” constitutes writing one of his male characters who happens to have tits and who another character can screw. What’s even worse, this isn’t Sabotage’s biggest misstep.

That has to be its violence and how it contextualizes it onscreen. This is all summed up nicely in a scene near the end of the second act, where Schwarzenegger sits down to watch his wife’s torture video again, this time with a nice glass of whisky. We’ve already seen the video in the film’s opening moments, but no matter, Ayer let’s us watch it again because the torture is so enjoyable, obviously. Rewatching the video gives us no new information we need as a viewer. It gives us the impression that Schwarzenegger’s Breacher often sits down to watch the video of his wife’s death, as if this kind of macho masculinity requires a man to stare down into the abyss and become one with it, but that only makes him something of a psychopath in the viewer’s eyes, which doesn’t seem to be Ayer’s goal. And the fact that Sabotage ends up validating Breacher in its final moments, showing how his embrace of violence has achieved some form of justice, is twisted.

Ayer has proven in other, better films that he can explore masculinity with nuance and relative levels of taste. But Sabotage is one messed-up look at violence and how men deal with it. There’s no grace here, only death. If this is how Ayer views the world, I’m terrified, and more than a little disgusted.

2 out of 10

Sabotage (2014, USA)

Directed by David Ayer; written by Skip Woods and David Ayer; starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, Joe Manganiello, Harold Perrineau, Martin Donovan, Max Martini, Josh Holloway, and Mireille Enos.