In the 1993 film Last Action Hero, Arnold Schwarzenegger playing himself, tells a TV interviewer that he “kills only 48 people in his latest film”. That was Arnie’s way of poking fun at himself, of decrying violence in films.
Two decades on, that number has remained constant, if not gone up. In Sabotage, the former California governor carries that same menacing look and swats people away — sometimes bigger than him, if that’s possible — like flies. All for a good cause: entertainment.
However, there is a problem. Unlike his ’80s films, where the killing made entertainment look like fun, this David Ayer film is too gory to elicit smiles. There are too many body parts, too many litres of blood, too many bloodied fenders to make for entertaining viewing. Wincing, actually, comes closer.
The deal is not Arnold. He is as wooden-yet-convincing as he only can be. The role even suits his stature. Yes, he lifts weights. And yes, he makes a shotgun look like a Smith & Wesson, but that is his wont, his on-screen calling. Without that, the Terminator would just not “be back”.
The deal is the whodunit in the story that frankly, did not require any. Sabotage is the story of DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) agent John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold) and his team, who steal $10 million during an operation, only to realise someone has stolen it from them. Six months and a gruelling inquiry later, the team finds that its members are being killed one-by-one in the most gruesome ways possible. The finger of suspicion obviously points to the person who stole the money that nearly cost them their careers. Ayer’s narrative follows the bloodied trail to find the killer.
Along the way, he seems to have picked up a distinct liking for butchered, mangled and nailed-to-the- ceiling bodies, and in case that’s not wince-worthy enough, he throws in pulled out entrails for good measure. Pink and red are the two dominant colours in this film, literally. And through all this gossamer of blood, if you find the story, then it is just so that more blood can come and drown it again.
Don’t get me wrong. Not everything about Sabotage is savage. There are performances that really work. Mireille Enos as one of the DEA agents, Lizzy, is quite convincing in her doped-out-meth-ridden role. Her husband — Sam Worthington nicknamed Monster — is good too, but unfortunately, does not have much to do, other than looking like he raided Fred Durst’s wardrobe and while he was at it, he also took haberdashery tips from the Limp Bizkit frontman.
For Arnold, this is a good role. No robotic stares, no mechanical arms or programmed voices, here, the governator gets scope to do more while staying in his comfort zone. He does too. So then why does Sabotage not work?
To be fair, the fault lies neither in Arnold’s ageing nor in Ayer’s dark world. Unlike the ’80s, today’s larger-than-life films are all driven by the superhero houses Marvel and DC comics, rather than an Arnold, Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. X-Men, Batman and Spiderman have studios and their original creators working overtime to back them, adding layers to their stories and, of course, pouring in the moolah.
Besides, Ayer tries one thing too many in the film. He has explored the same criminal underbelly of American society in earlier films like Training Day and Street Kings, but it was a controlled show. In Sabotage, you can’t shake off the feeling that he has overplayed his hand, the blame for which should partly rest with not being able to decide how to make the most of Arnold.