Sabotage is an interesting film. It won’t break any boundaries but the development of characters over the opening quarter subverts the genre.
The set up is pretty standard. Schwarzenegger leads a rag-tag group of DEA agents in a brutal assault on a drug baron’s mansion. The most striking scenes at the beginning hinge on the foul language between the group and the hatred the normal viewer develops for the group.
Normally the group are introduced and we feel some affinity before the main story begins. In Sabotage we only see the group doing horrible things. Drinking, aggressively swearing and abusing strippers are all normal for the men and woman of this group. Schwarzenegger himself plays a strange role. We know there is some darkness in his character but he continues his recent persona as an elder statesman who is the father figure of any movie he is in.
When things begin to break down we are ‘treated’ to members of the team being killed in more and more gruesome ways. But because we have no affinity for them we are able to see past the gore and look for a different anchor point in the film. For me this came in Olivia Williams character. She plays a tough, spinster type cop who becomes linked to Arnie while investigating the murders. She is in stark contrast to the character of Mirreille Enos who plays Lizzy the rough female in the group.
As both female characters continue to develop Schwarzenegger takes a brooding back seat as the story unfolds. Williams tough cop is shown as vulnerable but persistent, showing how rough locker-room style conversation can be likeable in scenes with her colleagues. The true repulsiveness of Schwarzenegger’s group manifests itself when they are first introduced to her at a barbecue/ wake for the first victim. They confuse her with a stripper and make lewd comments which normally would destroy the realism of the film, as they are so over the top. The group have become feral in the time between the first scenes of the film and the reintroduction of Schwarzenegger towards the end of the first act. Enos character is much more difficult to explain. In the first set-piece she is the undercover agent who we feel sorry for. She can clearly handle herself in this world of men but the way she does so is brutal. It is so vile that we stop seeing her as a female and lump her in with the other men in Schwarzenegger’s team. She too gets her moments by the end but her juxtaposition with Williams, driving the story in an action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sam Worthington is a notable feat.
The film has some problems. The disgust we feel towards the group makes it difficult to care enough about the core story to keep watching. Schwarzenegger’s back story needed to be more fully developed, rather than being a way to explain the carnage of the last act. Only then do we see his character for the damaged manipulator he is. By that stage we have been treated to an inventive car chase scene and a western style climatic shoot out.
Also the extreme realism of the HD violence is at first startling but becomes tiresome by the middle of the film. There are no real sub-plots or background stories going on. All that is left to the viewer to piece together. It could be argued that this works as the characters are so stereotypical to begin with tat we need no further information but personally, I needed more than a few scenes of drunk behaviour in a strip club.
Like I said I don’t see this as an excellent or brilliant film. I see it as a sign that Schwarzenegger is returning to what made his name. By being a presence in the film rather than the emotional anchor he can be far more effective. To a lesser extent Sam Worthington is the same. He is unrecognisable as Lizzy’s redneck husband and meets his end without any fanfare or drama. In this film the females are the stars until the big man gets his moment.