“Sabotage” opens with Arnold Schwarzenegger, as drug enforcement agent John “Breacher” Wharton, sitting in front of his computer screen watching a video of a woman being tortured. He’s obviously disturbed by it, judging by the look on his craggy face. It’s a nasty, brutish job he has.
By the time the movie was over, I shared his dismay.
After that brief, if intensely unpleasant prologue, the movie quickly gets down to its own dirty business, jumping to a scene of Breacher as he leads his team of elite commandos in a bloody assault on a drug dealer’s compound. As the bodies of the bad guys pile up, the movie’s apparent mantra — “Target down!” — is evoked again and again as these officers with military-grade weapons move through the house, shouting terse instructions to each other and recording kills with a regularity that’s almost fetishistic. Although the violence ebbs and flows, it never stops. If anything, the waves of mayhem pound harder and with greater frequency as the movie wears on, building to a conclusion that’s harrowing, even by the gruesome standards of today’s action thrillers.
That’s to be expected in a film by David Ayer, the writer of “Training Day” (2001) and the writer-director of “End of Watch” (2012). Both of those films presented a vision of law enforcement that was more savage than noble. Unlike them, however, “Sabotage” lacks any degree of artistic perspective on the barbarity. Despite the filmmaking polish that casts a sheen over all of Ayer’s films, making them easy to watch if hard to stomach, “Sabotage” is less tragic than simply tawdry.
The plot centers on the investigation of a series of assassinations targeting the members of Breacher’s team that begin shortly after that initial drug operation. (It can’t be called a “bust,” because there is no one left alive to arrest.) One by one, the members of Breacher’s squad start turning up dead, the victims of murders as grisly as they are theatrical. One is found nailed to the ceiling of his house, his entrails spilling out of his gutted abdomen like a chandelier. Apparently, someone is upset that Breacher and his team tried to help themselves to a bit of the loot they recovered at the scene.
Like most of Ayer’s heroes, the “good guys” are all flawed to varying degrees. One, played by Mireille Enos, is even a junkie. The rest are pretty much the kind of profane, sexist pigs who would make an NFL locker room look like a Boy Scout meeting. Ayer, I have no doubt, would argue that this frank portrayal honestly reflects the rough-and-tumble culture of steam-blowing machismo that permeates the high-stress world of SWAT teams. While that might be true, it ain’t pretty.
Frankly, it shouldn’t be. But Ayer’s earlier police films also possessed a kind of smart self-awareness, making statements that acknowledged both the convictions and the compromises that enable some officers to carry out their jobs. “Sabotage” seems less interested in using violence to make a point than to make entertainment. Certain scenes — focusing almost pornographically on butchered body parts and, as the film progresses, the increasing toll of collateral damage — are laughably intemperate. One car chase features a shot of the smashed skull of an innocent bicyclist who is hit by fleeing perps. Laughter isn’t the intended reaction, but it’s a form of emotional self-preservation.
Schwarzenegger is Schwarzenegger, albeit in a role that’s considerably darker than many he has taken. Much better and more nuanced is Olivia Williams, playing the detective looking into the string of murders. She, too, is ethically compromised, if only mildly. Harold Perrineau injects a bit of much-needed comic relief as her sidekick. As for the actors portraying the members of the special-ops team, they are largely relegated to the role of generic victim, with the notable exceptions of Terrence Howard and Sam Worthington. Worthington comes closest to being the film’s moral center, and I hate to tell you what happens to him.
That brings up the question of whether “Sabotage” even has a moral center (let alone wants one). As Breacher’s team starts to fall apart in suspicion and infighting, the movie breaks down, too, becoming not so much curious about how principles get corrupted as titillated by that corruption, which spreads like a pool of blood on the pavement under a bullet-ridden corpse.
This is a story that needs blood to make an impact because its message is murky. With a motivation that feels disturbingly similar to that of the guy who made the torture video that opens the film, “Sabotage” doesn’t exactly glorify violence, but it certainly does get off on it.
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, gore, obscenity, sexual dialogue and nudity.