If nothing else, Sabotage gave me an idea for a new Bechdel Test. Does the movie have two named female characters? Who try to kill each other in a gunfight that’s not about a man?
Sabotage is yet another retread of Training Day, the film which David Ayer can’t stop remaking. Corrupt, charismatic, hyper violent cop? Check. Somewhat more reasonable cop who spends the movie figuring out how to see through his bullshit but nonetheless winds up compromising their integrity? Check. Plot that doesn’t make any, you know, sense? Oh, yeah. Weirdly, the only thing that raises it above Ayer’s endless treadmill is that there are two comparatively interesting characters played by women. Notice, I did not say two interesting women characters. It just happened that the only people in the movie who weren’t petty dicks or rampaging testosterone driven asshats were being played by women. Or Harold Perrineau, one of several TV ringers brought in to provide some actual performances.
The best performance in the movie comes from TV veteran and part-time Cherie Blair impersonator Olivia Williams. Surrounded by platoons of shouting neanderthals, she takes the smart angle of being quiet, buttoned down and intelligent, making her simultaneously unique in the movie and the only character anyone in the real world would want to have a drink with. She doesn’t make her appearance until about half an hour into the action, and within five minutes I wanted the previous thirty minutes back, and the whole movie to be about her and her partner, Harold Perrineau, wisecracking their way through an irrational outbreak of mass murder in Atlanta.
Instead it’s a movie about Arnie’s larger than life DEA special operations team, who are pretty much an all-American death-squad. From the get-go we’re sold them as a team of elite operators who just get the job done, damn it, but in reality they’re smallpox in combat boots, the living embodiment of the cliché that when all you’ve got is a hammer, everything better be a nail. We meet them “raiding” a drug cartel money laundering operation and trying to help themselves to a share of the cash on hands; the rest of the movie is about the fall out. First there’s an enquiry about the missing money (the perfectly reasonable question of how the hell anyone would ever know laundered money was missing after Arnie exploded the whole cash pile is magnificently overlooked), and then there’s an outbreak of massively over the top murder as someone - someone, I tell ya - retaliates for the theft. It’s Olivia Williams’s unhappy lot to have to pick up the pieces as one team member after another gets schwacked as horribly as possible. I was guessing that the guys who got killed earliest were the ones with the best agents, but that was because I thought Max Martini was Aaron Eckhardt, who thankfully had nothing to do with the project after all.
There’s some good action set pieces - including the gunfight of sorts between Olivia Williams and Mireille Enos, also slumming from a TV show - but casting Arnie just wrecked any chance the movie had of being interesting. Arnie takes up too much space, and doesn’t have it in him to play any kind of ambiguity - or in his personality to play a character who turns out not to be a tortured hero. Giving him a role meant it was going to be an Arnie vehicle, and damn the point of the movie or any sense of balance among the various lunkheads on offer. Giving the role to someone like Michael Chiklis could have made a truly electric movie. And probably one with a better profit margin, since it would have been a better movie for a fraction of the price of Arnie.
In good news, it’s that rare movie in which almost every annoying character gets killed horribly, and the nicest people are still alive at the end of it. I think we’re supposed to be upset that Arnie dies at the end, nobly murdering a whole bunch of people for revenge that he could have got much more simply if he was a fraction of the badass he’s held out to be, but I was thinking well, at least there are slightly fewer assholes in the world. And, if I’m honest, I was also wondering whether they’d show cigar smoke coming out of the three or four sucking chest wounds he fetched up with. A Luc Besson movie would have paid attention to details like that.