Director: David Ayer
Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington
2 (out of 5) Globes
More than most, filmmaker David Ayer is drawn to evil. His breakthrough screenplay was for “Training Day,” whose villain oozed charisma yet was remorseless in his swaggering depravity. “Harsh Times” goes even farther into the abyss; its anti-hero (Iraq vet Christian Bale) isn’t even charming. The new “Sabotage” goes further still: It boats a team of crooked DEA vets, and they’re each and every one of them obnoxious, unpleasant, unlikable a—holes.
As they prove again and again that only British people know how to swear, you probably can’t wait for them to shut up or even die a horrible, needlessly bloody death. So the film obliges you. Very loosely modeled on “And Then There Were None” — albeit with a few more shocking, inane twists — it finds an elite team, led by a stone gargoyle (Arnold Schwarzenegger), getting wiped out one by one. Everyone assumes it’s the cartel from whom they just stole millions, only to lose it. But what if it’s one of them?
Ayer really isn’t a plotter so much as a guy who likes to soak up life amongst the disreputable. The actual mystery is muddled, more an excuse to stage gory demises. Nothing can prepare you for how much blood flows here, so much that you half expect the corpses, when found, to be deflated. The company (including Sam Worthington and Mireille Enos, as the group's token tough chick) gives the film its unusual life. Ayer doesn’t sugarcoat them; they’re all awful hotheads, each driven totally insane by spending years deep undercover. Scene after scene finds them hanging out by pushing eachother around, one-upping eachother, seeing who can fit as many f-bombs in one otherwise artless utterance.
They’re not a fun group to be around, but that’s the point. What Ayers is doing doesn’t always work: poor Terrence Howard, who can adlib better than any of them — yes, even better than Sam Worthington — can’t even get a word in edgewise. He’s simply in the wrong group. The only one who’s actually enjoyable is Olivia Williams’ investigator, who snoops into the murders. She's just as miserable as them, only she's (comparatively) witty about it. (As “The Ghost Writer” and “Hyde Park on Hudson” proved, few are better at being royally pissed off than the otherwise lovely Williams.)
But there’s still a mystery to solve, which becomes seriously unwieldy, well before a slapdash but forceful car chase that swipes from “The Killer”’s garage assault. But there’s a strange, seriously twisted integrity to it. It seems ambivalent over its nasty characters, at once repelled and respectful. Ayer’s camera pushes uncomfortably close in on them, whether they’re in action or knocking back cheap whiskey at a strip club and running their mouths. The shots aren’t pretty; they’re sloppy, underlit, “raw" — as volatile as the characters its frames can barely contain.
Ayer gets too close, for good and ill — for ill, because the action is usually incoherent, and because one should never be too near the hulking Schwarzenegger. The former action titan/politician — sporting an overly-combed nerd 'do that goes nicely with his obligatory neck tattoos — never seems comfortable with the invading cameras or the role. He's usually lost amongst the din, occasionally called on to brood over a video sent by a cartel as they torture his wife to death. “Sabotage” follows its characters into some dark, messed-up places, and by the end it’s found a bizarre nobility, if that’s the word, in what is truly repugnant behavior. It's weirdly admirable even as it's a drag to watch.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge