109 min., rated R.
"Training Day" screenwriter David Ayer's claim to fame has been his stream of gritty, hard-boiled police-corruption yarns — "Dark Blue," "Harsh Times," "Street Kings" and "End of Watch." Co-penning the script with Skip Woods (2013's "A Good Day to Die Hard"), Ayer knows this material well, but "Sabotage" is proof that he's losing a large chunk of the credibility he started with. His latest fuses a "Ten Little Indians" mystery with a lot of bullets and some left-over prosthetic gore from the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies. Sure, it occasionally flirts with entertainment value and buzzes with the intensity and realism of the Drug Enforcement world, but "Sabotage" ends up being a bloody mess, quite literally, without being much fun. Some brains might have helped, too. No, the ample amounts of brain matter splattered all over the walls do not count.
A cigar-chomping, weight-lifting Arnold Schwarzenegger gets back into the game (last seen in 2013's "Escape Plan"), here playing grief-stricken Atlanta DEA task force commander John 'Breacher' Wharton. Eight months after seeing the footage of his wife and son being tortured and killed by a Mexican drug cartel, he leads a covert team of adrenaline-fueled, hard-partying agents to bust a drug lord's mansion. Among the crew members, there is James 'Monster' Murray (Sam Worthington) and his drug-addicted wife Lizzy (Mireille Enos), Julius 'Sugar' Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Joe 'Grinder' Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Eddie 'Neck' Jordan (Josh Holloway), Tom 'Pyro' Roberts (Max Martini), and Bryce 'Tripod' McNeely (Kevin Vance). (And judging by all their nicknames, if you look closely, you can probably spot Animal and Beaker making walk-ons.) Once they successfully raid the cartel's safe house, skim $10 million for themselves by hiding it in the sewers, and burn the rest of the money, they go to recover their loot, but it turns out someone else found it first. With the team under suspicion by the FBI, Breacher and his operatives are under investigation. Six months pass and their boss (Martin Donovan) gives them back their badges. Soon enough, the hunters become the hunted, getting taken out one by one. Is it the cartel doing the grisly doings, or could the "saboteur" be coming from inside the tight-knit DEA family?
Armed with a hard R-rating and nastier sensibilities than the average slasher movie, "Sabotage" is brutal and vicious, making no apologies for its ruthless disregard for human life. It's jacked up on gruesomely violent exploitation from the word go, as we watch footage of Breacher's whimpering wife being tortured that he, himself, is watching. Gore and carnage have a place in movies, but it's treated here as equally savage and over-the-top that you can just picture director Ayer yelling, "More blood! More viscera!" to the make-up effects department. Sorry for the spoilers, but… A body is found gutted and nailed to the ceiling, its entrails hanging and leaving beneath a floor of blood that warrants a "Slippery When Wet" sign. The camera holds on a dying woman having her head blown off. Another body is even stuffed into a refrigerator with a pool of blood spilling out once that door opens. Though some of the guts resemble sausages, Ayer lingers on all of these gratuitous moments as if we were watching Forensic Porn. At times, the film is just trashy and gripping enough to hold our interest, but there's a consistent stench of jokey, off-putting scuzziness that keeps it all from ever jelling. Never does the film lionize the DEA team or not let them off the hook for their profane, crooked behavior, but it's hard to tell if Ayer and co-writer Woods really wanted us to like any of these unappealing, unsympathetic hardasses or not. It'd be easier to be more forgiving had the characters been interestingly drawn as more than hard-edged types and sketches who all talk in macho locker-room wisecracks and are no less the scum of the earth than the cartel members. Instead, the audience surrogate is Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), the take-no-crap homicide detective on the case following the first death. The dependable English actress has some trouble holding onto her Southern drawl, but Williams is tough-as-nails and as amusingly loose as she's ever been in a while, elevating everything around her as best as she can.
Though partially a vehicle for Ah-nuld (whose character gets the only backstory and actually tells off a cop for having "48 percent body fat"), the randomly assembled cast is done few favors, minus a few exceptions. An unrecognizable Sam Worthington is less wooden than usual with a beaded goatee and shaved head. Cornrowed, hairy and tatted as a biker who could eat the Hells Angels for breakfast, Joe Manganiello is machismo incarnate. Every last one of them is blustery, but Josh Holloway and Max Martini are indistinguishable, and Terrence Howard barely gets a chance to register. On the other hand, if you were mad Mireille Enos had zilch to do in "World War Z," don't be fooled by her Lizzy being the lone female of the drug-busting unit. Enos is the major standout and plays Lizzy with a crazier-than-a-shithouse-rat glee. Damaged, adaptable, and as coarse as the guys, her Lizzy is such a complete junkie mess, giggling and tasting a drop of meth during a bust, but she also kicks some ass.
Part action movie, part body-count whodunit, "Sabotage" isn't all bad, with one tense scene in a Winnebago parked on the train tracks and the fleetingly clever use of a GoPro attached to a gun. Some audience-tricking parallel editing also has a "The Silence of the Lambs" vibe, where a murder and the later investigation are intercut as if occurring simultaneously. Even so, once it's revealed who's behind the cash theft and the body count, the answers to the crimes are senselessly thrown to the wind. The dialogue is either awkwardly delivered, crassly unfunny and obnoxious—a couple of the guys joke about farting and penis tattoos more than once, and two stake-out cops talk about pissing into a bottle—or just terrible ("We had to go fingering the Devil's pussy!"). We won't even get into an unconvincing and forehead-smackingly strange, but thankfully only-implied, sex scene that comes out of nowhere. Finally, the "revenge" coda, where Mexican men and women all get blasted in a bar, is joyless and morally repellent when it should extract some sort of satisfaction. "Sabotage" is hardly ever boring, but if one had to answer with a gun to their head if it's actually worth seeing, try the shorter answer. There's no defending it as a guilty pleasure or even great trash. No buts about it: this is just ugly and stupid.
Grade: D +