Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to acting hasn’t been particularly successful, and last year both of his attempts to recapture his former glory — “The Last Stand” and “Escape Plan” — floundered at the box office. “Sabotage” isn’t exactly a departure, with Schwarzenegger shooting, punching and otherwise dispatching an international roster of baddies, but because the movie’s characters occupy an intriguing moral gray area, it is far better than it has any right to be.
The film opens with a raid on a cartel compound, led by DEA agent John “Breacher” Wharton (Schwarzenegger). He and his team steal $10 million from the cartel, but when they return for the loot, it’s mysteriously missing.
A star vehicle usually doesn’t open with its hero going on a killing spree for financial gain, but “Sabotage” brings a welcome degree of messiness to the table. David Ayer shares the script credit with Skip Woods, whose last film, “A Good Day to Die Hard,” was a certifiable crime against cinema. The pair managed to produce a great tough-guy screenplay, overflowing with testosterone and moments of sublime brutality. The central murder mystery lends a flavorful dose of Agatha Christie to the plot, but is too easily solved by picking out the most prestigious cast member with the least amount to do until the last half hour.
The film’s extensive cast is full of big-name stars, starting with Schwarzenegger, whose brand of action-hero efficiency is tempered with a tragic backstory that gives his performance a welcome hint of grim regret. Sam Worthington combines a ridiculous braided goatee and an admirable case of crazy eyes to give a surprisingly engaging performance, and Joe Manganiello is suitably gruff as another member of the team.
While “Sabotage” does well by its male cast members, its two females are stranded in a script that forgets when it’s supposed to be writing women characters. Olivia Williams overcomes a clunky Southern accent to play a tough cop investigating the team’s murders, but Mireille Enos is dragged through the mud as Lizzy, a rogue team member. While the writers attempt to sexualize Enos, she brings such a ragged, animal quality to the role that she’s more terrifying than anything. She is the most dysfunctional person in a film full of them.
“Sabotage” has one or two surprises up its sleeve, but the biggest one is its unyielding commitment to being the most aggressively sleazy film it can possibly be, with blood-soaked action scenes and a few shamelessly disgusting murders. While “Sabotage” isn’t an enduring shoot-’em-up classic, its messy ambiguity makes it a memorable film in a genre full of forgettable ones.