Label: Lionsgate UK
Release date: 7th May 2014
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Runtime: 109 mins
Rating: BBFC 15
BBFC Consumer Advice: Contains strong bloody violence, torture, sex references & strong language.
Filmmaker David Ayer, acclaimed for his gritty and realistic portrayal of life behind the blue line in End Of Watch, reinvents screen legend Arnold Schwarzenegger, as he directs Sabotage, an action thriller that follows one of the best assault teams on the planet, an elite special operations team of ten DEA agents. The elite team executes what appears to be a tactical raid on a cartel safe house, which in fact, turns out to be an elaborate theft operation, pre-planned by the members of the DEA squad itself. After hiding 10 million dollars in stolen cash, the rogue agents believe their secret is safe – that is until someone begins methodically assassinating members of the team, one-by-one. As the body count rises, everyone is suspect, including members of the team itself.
Other reviewers seem to be lukewarm on this latest film from writer-director Ayer, which credibly casts Arnold Schwarzenegger as an aging DEA Special Operations Team leader with a colourful combat squad of undercover operatives and a chequered past fighting Latin American drug cartels. Fans of gory cop actioners the way they used to make them in the 80s and 90s, however, should ignore the write-ups and go see this, exactly the right kind of film Arnie should be making at this stage in his career – they’ll have a blast.
It looks like the film-makers and cast also did too. The film opens as it means to go on, with low-res video showing a kidnapped woman being tortured, the torturers talking to whoever the video is intended for. It’s grim and nasty, and sets the tone perfectly for what follows. We then follow the team on a bust, hitting a dealer’s mansion within which Mireille Eno’s Lizzy is undercover, while the DEA themselves monitor the raid. The film escalates from casual nudity and drug use to explosive gunfights that are state-of-the-art in terms of hardware and the way Ayer’s team capture them in use. However, the big surprise is in just how violent and gory it all is.
How this got a 15 is beyond us – people get headshot, gutted by knives, nailed to ceilings, jugulars sliced open, with blood and gory chunks everywhere – heralded by the first of the SOT members to die, Pyro, played by Max Martini. His Winnebago is parked on a freight train line, and he wakes up drunkenly from a night out to find a train bearing down on him; the homicide unit investigating afterwards are forced to place a multitude of yellow flags all over the place, and the camera makes sure we see every grisly chunk, lingering on the exploded guts of the torso when it is found. Gunshots are more than a quick blood bag, they’ve been lovingly tailored by the FX team to match the calibre, power and range of the weapons used, leading to a gallery of creative blood sprays, brain matter and body parts blown apart or clean off.
The plot may indeed be an amped-up, macho version of an idea as old as Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Indians and before, but in Ayer’s hands this jumps from a typically crappy Skip Woods script (seriously – other than his debut Thursday, look at the track record – what works in his films works from director rewrites) to an action-movie version of the final-act plot arc of his recent first masterpiece End of Watch, looped into a bigger revenge plot that is classic Arnie. The clues are parcelled out at a perfect pace, the investigation on two fronts (Arnold’s Breacher and Olivia Williams’ homicide cop Caroline) dovetailing as the two play each other for their own ends, so cynical as to use each other yet so trusting as to back each other up in hazardous situations. Who would have thought that in a film that features two tough guys who have played Terminators, the tough-as-nails partner to Arnie would be slender British thesp Williams, creditably adding to her genre resume as the first woman to effectively back up Arnie since Linda Hamilton in T2: Judgement Day.
Williams is at the head of the finest ensemble to ever grace an Arnold film: Martin Donovan, Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, Max Martini, Joe Mangianello, Josh Holloway, Mireille Enos, Harold Perrineau – this beats the fine folk pulled together for The Last Stand and even challenges the gym heavies and character types of Predator. TV fans will recognise the last four from first-class performances in such shows as True Blood, Lost and The Killing, while Worthington proves that without CG and green-screen action he’s a fine actor capable of nuance and control matching up to the level of the aforementioned performers. He proves to be the heart of the team and the tragedy is brought home most in his eyes.
David Ayer, however, is the real star here. He adapts the style and realism of his previous L.A.-centric cop pics to this full-blown action genre piece, but doesn’t sacrifice those qualities that made his work stand out – attention to procedural detail, fine control of actors, composition and editing, careful use of music and a way with creative profanity that makes for good comedy. Good action scenes have always been part of his work, but here he leaps forward into the top tier of global action directors, combining realism with a sense of carefully controlled yet kinetic camerawork that thrills, surprises and shocks the audience. There hasn’t been a straight-up cop actioner like this since Andzrej Bartkowiak’s terrific Steven Seagal vehicle Exit Wounds, with which it shares a number of stylistic similarities, but this is operating at a whole other level. Expectations are now raised for Ayer’s next film, the WW2 tank flick Fury.
Ignore the half-hearted marketing and muted reviews; if you want to see the kind of bloody action film that Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Steven Seagal might have starred in once, or Walter Hill, Andrew Davis, or J. Lee Thompson might have directed, then go see Sabotage on a big screen with a noisy sound system. It’ll keep Arnie fans satisfied if they’re the sort to celebrate Raw Deal, Red Heat and Collateral Damage as well as the quippy blockbusters, and keep gorehounds happy after The Raid 2 until the next blood-soaked big-screen horror film comes along. It’s the best thing Arnie’s done since coming back out of retirement, and is exactly the kind of role he’s perfectly suited to now – long may he continue in this vein.