Since he left politics and returned to acting, Arnold Schwarzenegger has made a couple of decent, unexpected films. Last year’s The Last Stand and Escape Plan gave us somewhat new sides to the onetime action superstar, and showed him taking some risks – the former put him in a rambling ensemble action comedy as an aging sheriff, the latter behind bars as a troublemaking prisoner in a high-tech penitentiary (and playing second fiddle to Sylvester Stallone). For the first hour or so of his latest, you begin to think that he might be going three for three. Sabotage starts off as a fun, nasty, occasionally surprising little piece of genre filmmaking. But it gradually loses the thread.
Schwarzenegger plays John Wharton, a.k.a. “Breacher,” the leader of a DEA Special Ops team comprised of hard-playing, hard-working, wisecracking misfits, all of them with G.I. Joe-style nicknames like “Grinder,” “Neck,” “Pyro,” and “Tripod.” (A couple of them are even played by real movie stars, like Sam Worthington and Terrence Howard.) When we first meet them, they’re in the midst of ripping off a powerful drug lord’s giant stash of cash. They’re not just “seizing the guy’s assets”; they are genuinely stealing, with plans to keep the money for themselves. But then, at the last second, somebody — they don’t know who — rips them off. A few months later, various members of the team start to die off in spectacularly gruesome ways. As a fetching homicide cop (Olivia Williams) starts to investigate the killings, Breacher and team begin to wonder if there might be a traitor in their midst.
It’s not exactly an original idea, but for part of its running time, Sabotage distinguishes itself by staying focused on the DEA team’s banter and chemistry rather than the action. Their macho back-and-forth has a bit more kick than the usual testosterone-fueled movie dialogue. (The writer-director, David Ayer, has made a name for himself with authentic portraits of the law enforcement world in films like Harsh Times, Training Day, and End of Watch.) It helps that Schwarzenegger has settled nicely into his age: He’s more convincing here as a gruff manager than he is as an action hero, the way that an aging John Wayne functioned in Howard Hawks films like Rio Bravo and Hatari! and El Dorado. In fact, without overstating the case, it seems clear that Sabotage owes more than a little debt to Hawks’s “hang-out movies,” the ones where you lose yourself amid the alluring subculture of a small group of jaded professionals.
That kind of laid-back atmosphere goes a long way towards carrying us through the rest of the movie — especially as the plot becomes more and more generic and, finally, downright idiotic. For Sabotage, as good as it is in its first half, can’t keep it together. Partly, it’s a matter of design: As the team starts to get picked off, there’s less chemistry to enjoy, and we have to settle for increasingly uninspired action theatrics, including one truly terrible car chase. But one also can’t help but think that Schwarzenegger, after this small holding pattern of playing “interesting” roles, is finally ready to get back to his killing-machine roots. (I believe there’s even a new Terminator movie on the horizon, too.) On the evidence of Sabotage’s eye-rollingly uninspired climax, we may be poorer off for it.