Sabotage is the first film in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s post-gubernatorial career that tries to do something beyond having the veteran action star look cool and kill bad guys. It places the actor in a role of a man with a hazy moral code, in a story that uses elements of real world conflict. Sadly, this doesn’t pan out. The film becomes overwhelmed by its commitment to a particular flavor of machismo, undermining the overall complexity of this story.
John "Breacher" Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads an elite tactical squad of covert DEA agents. On one of their raids, they try to steal ten million dollars from a Mexican cartel. But the plan goes wrong and the money disappears. Breacher and his team are put under investigation for the missing cash, but are cleared of all charges six months later. They try to get back to normal operations, but then one of them turns up dead. And then another. It becomes clear that they're being hunted down, and they have to figure out who's doing it.
The film sets the tone with an early scene set inside a van carrying the squad. The members of the team are trading ribald barbs as they head out to an operation. The pretense here is that this is how real operatives talk, the testosterone flying like crazy as they prepare to get into a dangerous firefight. While there must be some truth to this, the film goes overboard with it, making it feel like macho posturing. There’s no respite from it, every important character talking tough and dirty to the point that it comes off as artificial.
The film is so focused on exuding this macho aura that it ends up making the characters all sound the same. It becomes difficult to distinguish between the characters, who are all ramped up to the same extreme level of manliness. Lost in all this is any genuine examination of the consequences of the drug war, which appears to be the original impetus for this story. The film will offer hints of something deeper lurking beneath the musky exterior, but invariably reverts to the posturing before long. The purported realism of all this talk also stands in direct opposition to what turns out to be a pretty silly plot in the end.
Standing at the eye of this whirlwind of tough men and women is a stony faced Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former governor can be a capable actor, but here he is limited to a couple of expressions. An overqualified supporting cast is largely misused as they trade in distinctive personalities for more tough talk. The likes of Terrence Howard, Sam Worthington and Josh Holloway become indistinguishable from each other. A somewhat interesting turn from the consistently great Olivia Williams provides some intrigue, but her character is ultimately just another variation of one the guys.
Sabotage had a real chance to be great. Its cast alone indicates a much greater potential than what ends up on screen. But these usually great performers are rendered indistinct by the film’s allegiance to the testosterone flavor. It just gets tiresome after a while, the film just unwilling to show any nuance or variation in its depiction of these characters. It also doesn’t help that the local version is also sanitized a bit, the full ugly reality of the violence unavailable to our audiences. The whole thing is a loud, largely unpleasant mess that only rarely exhibits the greatness that could have been.