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On Sabotage, and why some films just shouldn’t be made

April 1st, 2014

Sabotage, it just has to be said, is a film that simply didn’t need to be made.



The story is quite straightforward — a special-ops team within the American Drug Enforcement Administration carry out a raid, at the end of which a few million dollars appear to be missing. The members of the team are suspended, and their leader Breacher, played with precious little acting ability by Arnold Schwarzenegger, puts the band back together when the investigation into the missing money leads nowhere. The various members of the team then start meeting increasingly messy deaths. There is, quite possibly, the making of a decent film in there. Sadly, however, director David Ayer managed not to make that film, and instead put together a rather ugly mess of cliché, grunts and violence porn.

I did — I really did, I promise — go into the screening of Sabotage with an open mind, but Sabotage did little to impress. The character development, for example, is truly woeful: the DEA team, with their ruggedly and excitingly macho nicknames — there’s Tripod, and Grinder, and Neck — are so poorly drawn as to be utterly indistinguishable, the sole exception being Lizzy, remarkable simply for being the token woman on the team. There is nothing at all to distinguish the half-dozen members of the team Schwarzenegger’s Breacher leads; as a result, when they start to die, it’s hard to care. The characters are lazy clichés from the standard catalogue of action-movie casting — even when suspended, they appear to live together in some sort of DEA clubhouse, lifting weights, tattooing each other and tossing around unimaginative insults. Off-duty, we’re led to believe, they’re utterly undisciplined, but as soon as they put on their bulletproof vests, they’re an elite team. Sigh.

And, being an elite team, they don’t have to conform to anything resembling police procedure or protocol — on a tip-off, they storm a flat, shoot so many holes in the walls it’s a miracle the roof stays up, and kill anyone they decide is Bad Guys, in their self-appointed role as judge and executioner. Regular city coppers, of whom a handful appear in the film, including Caroline, played by Olivia Williams, who really, really should know better, take the trouble to swear affidavits in order to get warrants, but our heroes simply kill Bad Guys. I don’t necessarily expect absolute by-the-letter adherence to the police handbook, but at the very least I’d like to see something plausible.

Which brings us nicely to the acting. I still struggle to understand how Arnold Schwarzenegger has managed to build a career beyond bodybuilding — a pact with the devil, perhaps, or he has very, very compromising Polaroids of every single producer in Hollywood in a shoebox under his bed — but build several he has. He has, let’s be fair, made decent films — Terminator II is a genuinely excellent film, and when he realised that he was becoming a parody of himself, he embraced this development in True Lies and, especially, Last Action Hero. But with Sabotage, someone, it would seem, has told him that he’s an actual actor. He’s not. He simply isn’t. He’s a bag of muscles with an absurd accent, topped with an even more absurd multi-coloured wig. Somebody needs to take him outside, sit him down and explain, patiently, that if this is the best he can manage after, astonishingly, 45 years in films, then his career is less due to any actual thespian talent, and more to sheer, boundless good luck. And let’s not even ask why it is that nobody bothers to wonder why a character named John Wharton has an utterly laughable Austrian accent — credibility is stretched every time he opens his mouth, and really can’t withstand any further strain.

The rest of the cast might, possibly, be quite gifted and excellent actors, but Sabotage isn’t the platform to showcase their talents. The dialogue is appallingly dreadful, most of it shouted over explosions, or shouted over gunfire, or, well, just shouted. Attempts at sharp, witty buddy dialogue are simply grating. In the end, the script simply serves to connect the action sequences.

And many are those action sequences. This is a violent film that revels in its violence in a way that can only really be described as pornographic. When people are shot, especially in the head, there will inevitably be some blood, and too many films do tend to shy away from showing the unavoidable messiness of death. But Sabotage revels in it, with blood splattering at every possible opportunity once the killing starts in earnest. Blood covers floors, splashes against windows — Quentin Tarantino did something similar during the climax of Django Unchained, and it didn’t work there either, but at least the preceding hour and a half of Django Unchained had been sufficiently excellent that you could forgive a little squelchy bloodiness. Sabotage doesn’t earn the right to shock — it simply tries to shock for the sake of shocking, and doesn’t quite seem to care, especially during the climax, how many innocent, anonymous bystanders its unremarkable characters take out with them. It doesn’t quite have the courage to cross over all the way into full-blown torture porn, keeping at least one foot squarely in the safer territory of basic genre action, but this is a film that likes its violence front-and-centre, revelling in its squelchiness.

This is not a pleasant film. Films don’t have to be pleasant — going back, again, to Tarantino, Reservoir Dogs is a relentlessly unpleasant film, but it’s also an astonishingly excellent one. Sabotage is just bad.

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