As a heads up – this one is going to be a little rant-y at the beginning. You have been warned.
I had two major issues with Sabotage, then some minor issues. The two major issues are the state of action movies in general, and then the role of women in said action movie genre.
I have always loved action movies. In the 80s, which was the heyday of the over-the-top silly action movie with an over-the-top larger-than-life action hero, action movies were violent, by the book, and usually had a sense of fun about them – hero is wronged, hero seeks vengeance, and usually goes against the ‘rules’ to do so. That continued a bit more tongue-in-cheek through the 90s, then in 2002, the Bourne Identity came out, and we had a shift in action movie mentality.
Gone were the ridiculous one-man-against-the-world mentality and the silly cartoon-gore high body counts. Suddenly, the action hero was reborn as a gritty, real-world guy who was conflicted about what was happening and what he had to do. Directors and writers started making action movies more “real”. The action and fight scenes started being shot super close-up to make the viewer feel as if they were in the fight scenes. I am sure several people have written dissertations on why this happened and whether or not it had anything to do with 9/11, and the shift in mood in America in general. Only recently have we seen the simple story and straightforward action movie return. Taken would be a prime example of this. They took his daughter; he’s killing anything in his path as he goes to get her back. I’m pretty sure there was a Charles Bronson movie with a similar plot. I also feel like the Expendables was a perfect throwback to those terribly wonderful action movies of the 80s.
It’s always been a little tough to be a female action movies fan, especially in the 80s. Almost every single one of those movies had at least 1 PTS (pointless tit shot), which is annoying, and never balanced out by a corresponding full frontal male nude shot. Hey – we women watch these movies too – throw in a PDS for us (pointless dick shot – I should not have had to spell that out for you, you should have guessed what that stood for). The PDS rarely makes an appearance, and is always outdone by the amounts of PTSs. In any case - the women in the majority of these movies were useless eye candy at best, and horrifyingly insulting at worst. Someday I would like Cynthia Rothrock to write a book about her experiences making action movies. She was one of the only legitimate female action stars during the action movie heyday. The China O’Brien movies were great (okay, they were terrible, but super entertaining). My favorite was Honor and Glory, which teamed Rothrock’s no nonsense cop with her sister, a no nonsense reporter. Both were tough martial artists with no extra explanation for their skill. They were just tough.
Pam Grier was always tough in her movies, but you can go into a whole separate discussion with the Blaxplotation era of films. Jenette Goldstein’s performance in Aliens is exceptional (I have always been a fan of hers – yes, because of the name – but also because she was so badass as Vasquez, in Near Dark, and again as the Foster mother in T2 “Wolfie’s fine honey, Wolfie’s just fine”).
In 2003 Taratino released Kill Bill and Uma Thurman’s bride was perhaps the most badass female to ever hit the screen. She woke up after being left for dead and went on a mission; unapologetically vicious and violent in her quest for vengeance. Incidentally, I love the speech she gives to Vernita Green’s kid after taking out her mother - that kid would be about 20 now, and probably starting to think about chasing down the Bride for some vengeance of her own. Get on that Tarantino.
More recently Steven Soderburg created the excellent movie Haywire for real-life MMA star Gina Carano. The movie was great, and she was great in it (in any scene where she didn’t have to talk). There was no unnecessary explanation for her being a badass, she simply was. I hope that this will lead to more action movies like this.
Rhonda Rousey (another real-life MMA start) is in the upcoming Expendables 3 – surely we can get some more female action stars? As for the constant statement of “no one wants to see an action movie with a female lead”, I will always call bullshit on that. Make a good, entertaining movie, and people will watch it, regardless of who the lead is. Why bring this whole thing up? Because if action movies in general have moved towards more "gritty" and "real", why have the roles for women in them not become more real and equal? Some have, Haywire is a great example - but that is the only one I can think of right now. Why does this pertain to Sabotage? Because Sabotage is a "gritty" and "real" action movie and because there are two strong female roles in this movie – and while performed well, they are written poorly. They could have been strong enough to counterbalance all the testosterone in this movie, they end up being more than a little insulting. Warning - below is a red band trailer (cursing, violence, and nudity are present!).
2nd Warning – Spoiler alert – I intend to discuss the entire plot – so if you plan on seeing this movie (don’t bother), don’t read the rest of this until after you have seen it.
Sabotage opens with a woman getting tortured/raped to death. Seriously. They don’t show everything that’s happening to her, but it’s easy to interpret. It’s via a video that was sent to our hero. He’s a big time DEA agent, and the cartels have taken his wife and son. Then the title comes up. Already I had checked out. We then head to what seems to be a drug party at one of the cartel’s home bases, with the tagline “8 months later”. We first are introduced to the character of Lizzie as she does some cocaine and agrees to have unprotected sex with one of the cartel members. She’s a member of an elite DEA team which is arriving to raid the house. She takes out the dude she’s with, then meets up with the team, and leads them to a room in which there is one of those pallets of money that drug kingpins always have in their houses. They begin wrapping some of the money, tying it to a rope to drop it down the plumbing under the toilet (Why does the money room have a toilet?). They blow up the rest of the money. Later, they come back to the sewer after the raid to collect their stolen payday, only to find that someone else has already stolen it.
We then see each member of the team interviewed by the DEA version of internal affairs as the upper-level guys attempt to find out where the money went (if they blew up the rest, how does the DEA know $10 million is missing?). This serves as character development for us as we get to learn more about each character; Breacher, Grinder, Monster, Neck, Pyro, Sugar, and Tripod – they lost Smoke in the raid. None of them cave, maintaining that they did not steal the money (which, technically, they didn’t). After many months of observation, they finally allow Breacher (our hero) to get back in the game since they have found no evidence that he or the team stole the money. He goes to reassemble the team, and it would appear they have all been hanging out in what used to be their office, drinking, tattooing each other, and talking about how much they would each like to have sex with Lizzie, despite her being married to Monster. Lizzie is drugged out lunatic and everyone seems to know that, but no one seems concerned. In any case, Breacher shows up, and they start re-training. I don’t know how long they were out of commission, but they seemed to have forgotten a lot of their training.
They go out to a strip club to celebrate their reinstatement, which involves Lizzie bragging about which of the strippers she would do, then taking over the pole, then they all get really drunk, then they knock out the security after Sugar decides he wants to work the pole. Here’s the problem - these characters are supposed to be the ‘heroes’ of this movie, and they are all so completely despicable, it’s impossible to understand why we are supposed to be on their side. I had the same issue with the movie Pain and Gain.
Later that night, Pyro is in his RV, which someone has parked on the train tracks. He gets obliterated. In comes a pair of cops, Caroline and Jackson to rule it an accident. Then, Neck ends up nailed to the ceiling in his house, gutted (not In the British slang version meaning really disappointed – literally gutted with intestines draping down to the floor). The cops link the deaths, and the squad starts to realize that someone is after them. Breacher partners up with Caroline to track down Tripod, who quit after the initial money-stealing raid. In a slick bit of layering, we see what happened to Tripod as they investigate, even though it happened about a week ago. So that’s three down. Somewhere along the line, Caroline and Jackson demand assistance from the DEA (who were these guys, who did they piss off?), but they refuse, needing some paperwork filled out. Breacher brings a file to Caroline’s house as she is swimming naked (what?), and they end up screwing (there goes her credibility as a character maybe you could root for).
The rest of the high-strung groups panics, and inevitably turn on each other. They meet up, accuse each other – Lizzie tells Monster she’s been screwing Sugar (what?), and Grinder takes off to confess to Caroline, who of course confides in Breacher. She and Breacher meet with Grinder, but Lizzie kills him, after having already killed Monster and shoving him in their refrigerator (I bet right about now they are all wishing they had dealt with her drug problems earlier). Eventually Breacher and Caroline chase them down, but Sugar manages to decapitate himself in the car and nearly kill Lizzie in the trunk. Breacher asks Lizzie why she killed everyone (how did she manage to nail Neck to his ceiling?) – she claims because they stole her money. Breacher says he stole it, and she realizes he took it to try to track down the men who killed his wife, she says it won’t bring them back and he shoots her. Caroline gets upset, he tells her to walk away, she turns back to talk to Jackson who has finally shown up (where were you? Now go pick up Terrance Howard’s head since you were both in The Best Man movies), then turns back around and Breacher is literally gone – as in disappeared. Then we get an epilogue in which he heads to Mexico, wipes out a bunch of dudes in a bar, kills the guy who killed his wife, and gets mortally wounded in the process. Yikes.
David Ayers, who also directed End of Watch and Harsh Times, excels at the gritty action movie, and seems to have achieved his goals. It’s well put together, the actors all did a great job of making me hate every single one of them, and if the goal was gritty and realistic action, he accomplished that too. So why did I hate it? The level of gore was insane, and without cause. The bits that used to be Pyro are strewn all over after the train collision, and the disemboweled Neck nailed to the ceiling was just unnecessary. Not to mention all the excessively bloody bullet hits. Sure – it’s shooting for authentic, so they wanted the violence to be authentic, but honestly, it was a bit much. The cast does a good job with what they are asked to do.
- Arnold does a good job playing the beaten and weary Breacher. His focus is getting the killer of his wife, but constantly watching the video they sent of her death doesn’t seem like the right way to go about it. Hey - how about all those fake tattoos?
- Sam Worthington plays Monster – and at first is almost unrecognizable. He’s got a shaved head and strangely braided and beaded goatee, but then his wooden acting shows up again and you realize who it is. He spends the most time trying to help the cops, and you feel bad for him when Lizzie is really the monster in the relationship.
- Josh Holloway plays Neck – he’s belligerent and nasty, right up until he gets nailed to the ceiling. When Caroline first comes over to the house to interview him after Pyro gets smashed, he insists on referring to her as a stripper even after she shows her badge.
- Joe Manganiello plays Grinder – and looks like an insane member of a biker gang. Also – the braids – whatever. Again, he does a good job – it’s just that the character is so terrible, you feel nothing when he finally gets taken out. Also – he continues to badger Caroline about being a stripper when she comes by the house – guys, seriously – she’s a cop, knock it off.
- Terrance Howard plays Sugar – and if there’s anyone I don’t buy as a member of an elite DEA team, it’s him. He seems to have the least amount of lines of anyone in the group, and is fairly quiet. I kept being surprised when he showed up. Also – he did try to work that stripper pole.
- Max Martini plays the same character he has worked to perfect in Pyro – hard-edged ex-military types. He’s usually more quiet, so it was interesting to see him dial it up a notch. I was a little surprised he could not figure out how to escape that RV once it ended up on the train tracks, but hey – he was really really drunk.
- Kevin Vance plays Tripod, and you really don’t get to spend any time with him. As I said – I enjoyed the investigation layered over what happened to him, it was an interesting choice. He was also in End of Watch – and functioned as the military consultant on this movie and others, so clearly this is a man with real experience in the field, who now helps bring the realism to movies like this.
- Mireille Enos plays Lizzy – and she does a great job, but I hated the character as written. Which is probably the point. Because she is the first character we are introduced to, and the one we get the most character development on, she could be the center of the movie. She could have been an epic villain, and I suppose in a sense, she was. Her absolute joy when they find a bunch of liquid meth is really off-putting. Her complete participation in the partying at the strip club is off-putting, and her introduction of Caroline to the others as a stripper is off-putting. Everything about her is off-putting, but that is exactly what she was asked to do. I get it; in order to fit in with this group of alpha males and get the job done, she has to out-alpha-male them, and she does end up being the bad guy, so it works – I guess. But why couldn’t one of the male characters have been the druggie psychopath, and Lizzy just been another member of the team? As an interesting side note – Malin Akerman was originally cast in this role, then she got pregnant, so Enos got the part. There’s no way Akerman could have pulled this off. Of course, based on Enos’s work prior to this (she was most recently Brad Pitt’s wife in World War Z), I would not have guessed she could have pulled it off either, so who knows.
- Olivia Williams (I spent the whole time trying to figure out where I knew her from – she’s Adelle from Dollhouse) plays Caroline. She should have been a straightforward character - just a tough cop trying to do her job - after all, it was going to be so tough to get information from this tight-knit group of DEA maniacs – but then when Breacher brings her the file and she ends up in bed with him – only to realize within hours that he did that to make her do the research (“you used me!” no shit, why did you not see that coming?) I lost respect for the character. She allows him to play her all the way through the movie. Again – Williams does a great job, it’s just that I hate the way the character is written.
- Thank goodness for Harold Perrineau as Jackson – he’s the only good character – and he barely gets any screen time!
Honestly, the movie is well-crafted, it's just a tough watch. I was kept guessing as to who was taking out members of the team. I had low expectations, and I was still disappointed. The run time is only 109 minutes, and it still felt really really long. If they had turned the drugs, violence, language, and nudity down to a 9 from a 12, I might have liked it better, but then, that wasn’t what they were trying to make. No one in the theater reacted positively as I was leaving, and so far – it’s made only $5.3 million on a budget of $35 million. At least Arnold will always have this:
3 out of 10. Just my personal opinion. Lost points for opening with the torture. Lost points for the shit-covered toilet in the beginning. Lost points for the heroes starting out as thieves. Lost points for Manganiello’s nostril flaring. Lost points for Holloway’s nailed moment. Lost points for Lizzie sticking Monster in a fridge. Lost points for Caroline being surprised she was being used, and finally gained points for Harold Perrineau. But then lost points for him having no scenes with Holloway. Sorry, Lost fans.
Bonus Video 1: Navy Seals – the 1990 version of a group of military-type alpha males on a mission. This one was way more fun – and hey! Bill Paxton!
Bonus Video 2: Predator – the most Alpha-male movie ever – also way more fun – and hey! Carl Weathers! Be sure to pair this with Predator 2 so you can go, hey! Bill Paxton! again.
Bonus Video 3: Cast Interviews.