Friday, March 28, 2014

Sabotage: Vicious, vulgar trash

Sabotage (2014) • View trailer 
No stars (turkey). Rating: Rated R, for strong bloody violence and gore, relentless profanity, nudity, drug use and sexuality

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.28.14

Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

Our rough 'n' tumble "heroes" — from left, Neck (Josh Holloway), Breacher (Arnold
Schwarzenegger), Pyro (Max Martini) and Tripod (Kevin Vance) — infiltrate a drug cartel
safe house, taking down all opposition while cracking wise. Because real DEA agents
behave like this all the time, donchaknow.
Once upon a time, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger vied for the crown of box-office action champ: the former riding the momentum of his Rocky and Rambo franchises; the latter embracing a string of solid sci-fi/fantasy entries such as Conan the Barbarian, Predator and — needless to say — The Terminator.

Now they’re in a race to the bottom.

I was astonished — and saddened — when Stallone popped up about a year ago, in the loathsome Bullet to the Head. Exiting that bit of distasteful junk, I couldn’t imagine any (former) big-name star doing worse.

Color me surprised, because along comes Schwarzenegger and this repugnant turkey.

Back in the day, you’d have had to stay up late on a Friday night — at home — to see this sort of grade-Z shoot-’em-up on Cinemax. No self-respecting actor would have signed on for such grindhouse trash, and no self-respecting studio would have dared release such a thing theatrically.

My, how times have changed.

Sabotage isn’t merely offensively, viciously, gratuitously violent; it’s also stupid beyond measure.

Director David Ayer has made a minor splash with gritty urban thrillers such as Harsh Times and Street Kings — don’t feel bad, if they escaped your notice — but his primary Hollywood rep results from his impressive one-two punch as a writer, in 2001: collaborating on The Fast and the Furious, and as sole scripter on Training Day, which brought Denzel Washington an Academy Award.

Based on his subsequent career, Ayer has been chasing the belief that amorality for its own sake is what sells in these United States. Why bother with plot or character, when one can wallow in the sleaze of ghastly depravity?

He has teamed here with co-writer Skip Woods, who also made some noise in 2001, with the stylishly nasty Swordfish, and more recently got involved with glossy action junk such as The A-Team and A Good Day to Die Hard. Nothing to brag about, to be sure, but also nothing to be ashamed of. Until now.

Based on this result, Woods and Ayer clearly bring out the worst in each other ... and given the degree to which the latter already had been plumbing sewer depths, that’s saying a lot.

They unapologetically display their nauseating sensibilities from the first frame here, as we watch a woman being brutalized and maimed. (Bang’s 17th Law: No movie that opens with the torture of a defenseless woman ever amounts to anything.) Turns out this is a video clip being viewed, likely for the umpteenth time, by an emotionless John “Breacher” Wharton (Schwarzenegger).

Enjoy that stoic look, because “emotionless” is all we get out of Schwarzenegger during this entire film.

Breacher heads an elite DEA task force that has earned an impressive reputation for taking on, and bringing down, the worst of the baddest drug cartel heavyweights. We’re told this fact, but reconciling such information with this squad’s on-screen behavior brings new meaning to concept of narrative oxymoronism.

These squabbling, temper-prone, third-grade dropouts couldn’t tackle a troop of girl scouts without shooting each other and killing half a dozen civilians as a bonus. Somewhere along the line, Ayer and Woods confused good-natured macho bonding with sociopathic instability.

When these wild ’n’ crazy kids aren’t busy killing folks or screaming at each other, they gulp shots at the local strip club, so that Ayer can inject the obligatory quota of bared boobs.

Borrowing an increasingly tiresome action genre cliché, these guys are known solely by their dumb nicknames: Monster (Sam Worthington), Grinder (Joe Manganiello), Sugar (Terrence Howard), Neck (Josh Holloway), Tripod (Kevin Vance), Pyro (Max Martini) and Smoke (Mark Schlegel). A few of these monikers relate vaguely to their respective talents, as with Pyro, but we’re left wondering precisely what “Neck” and “Tripod” might suggest.

That’s it for characterization, by the way.

The squad’s toughest and nastiest member, however, is Lizzy (Mireille Enos), a trash-talking bee-yatch who can out-drink, out-fight, out-curse, out-shoot and out — well, no, this is a family publication — any of her male comrades. So she claims. Stray scenes of Enos sweating through exercises can’t obscure the fact that any one of these guys could snap her 5-foot-2 frame like a twig. But hey: That’s Hollywood, right?

Lizzy also happens to be a junkie who gleefully samples the narco spoils discovered by Breacher’s team; at one point, she even chugs a liberal dose of liquid meth. Hell, yeah; That's a woman I’d want on my cop squad.

But their behavior doesn’t actually matter in the usual sense, because this narrative opens as the squad takes down yet another nest of nameless, faceless drug smugglers — and “faceless” is the operative term, since most of these thugs get their heads blown off — and then steal $10 million from this cartel safe house’s massive stash of cash. Yep, our so-called good guys (and gal) actually are corrupt to the core.

Having cleverly snitched the aforementioned sum, hiding it for later retrieval, Wharton then blows up the rest of the cartel loot with a well-placed bomb.

Pay attention, now: Wharton and his team subsequently get brought up on charges by the DEA, for having stolen that money. Wharton’s previously shining reputation (seriously? leading that motley crew?) goes into the toilet, and his comrades get suspended.

But ... but ... if the entire world believes that all the money blew up in the safe house, what would make the DEA think that Wharton’s squad stole even one dollar, let alone 10 million?

Yep, we’re dealing here with a classic example of the idiot script, where each and every character behaves like an idiot at all times, and the idiot writers can’t even be bothered to remain consistent to their own wafer-thin premise.

This hiccup aside, the cartel in question is understandably vexed by the (apparent) total loss of its loot. No surprise, then, when members of Breacher’s squad start getting assassinated, one by one. Nor are these simple, bullet-to-the-brain executions; oh, no. Ayer lovingly wallows in contrived, complicated murders swiped from torture-porn franchises such as Saw, Final Destination and — reaching back — Friday the 13th.

So we don’t simply see one poor guy check out when his trailer home gets parked on a track in front of an approaching train; we also witness the body-mangling impact — in slow motion — and then, later, watch cops and FBI agents tag stray limbs, gristle and organs.

The low point, though, comes when gritty investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) — searching the home of another of Breacher’s squad, late at night — slips and falls into the pool of blood beneath the next victim, who has been nailed to the ceiling above, entrails hanging from the gaping chest cavity.

(We can idly wonder how anything less than four or five killers, working in concert, could have managed such a trick.)

Arnie, Arnie, Arnie. Have you no shame?

By now you must’ve gotten the message: This is grotesque, lowest-common-denominator garbage of the worst sort.

Perhaps making up for Schwarzenegger’s impassivity, the rest of the cast over-acts to a ludicrous extreme; Ayer apparently believes that shouting and finger-pointing are the height of thespic subtlety. Enos, perhaps recognized from TV’s The Killing, is by far the worst: Even given that she’s playing a drug addict, her shrieking, gibbering “emoting” is the stuff of Golden Raspberry Award legend.

And I’m sure this film will gallop home with at least a dozen Razzie nominations, come early 2015.

In fairness, Williams’ Brentwood is a genuinely interesting character; the same can be said of Harold Perrineau, who plays her partner, Jackson. Williams and Perrineau obviously know how to act persuasively, in spite of Ayer’s ham-handed interference, and their characters clearly wandered in from some better, smarter movie.

That is, until Williams bares her boobs during a late-night swim, and then falls into Schwarzenegger’s arms in the most contrived kiss I’ve seen in decades. The best actors in the world couldn’t have saved that scene; even Tuesday evening’s rowdy preview crowd booed and jeered.

Ultimately, despite pretentions toward “originality,” Ayer and Woods have unleashed little beyond the big-screen equivalent of a particularly violent, first-person-shooter video game. And, as if to cement that thought, cinematographer Bruce McCleery even tosses in an unintentionally hilarious, rotating, looking-into-the-gun-barrel, point-of-view shot.

I’d have tossed up my hands at that point, but I’d already worn out my shoulders half an hour earlier.

This is contemptible, unpardonable rubbish of the worst sort: the type of swill that makes one fear for the future of Western civilization.

I’d hate to think Stallone would regard this as some sort of challenge, and I’d further hate to think that anybody Out There could write and direct something even worse.

But, as Bill Cosby has said, Never tempt “worse.”

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