David Ayer’s latest, Sabotage, is a sloppy DEA whodunit, distinguished by its scatological humor and gore. The plot, which involves an elite undercover unit whose members are being killed off in assorted grisly ways, is too arbitrary to be suspenseful, but too convoluted to allow the characters to develop beyond their roles as potential suspects. The blunt point is that these guys (and token gal) have spent so much time undercover that they’ve become psychologically indistinguishable from cartel thugs, though Ayer—who’s never let a good story get in the way of his love of macho cop posturing—muddles it by populating the movie with ineffectual investigators and wormy desk-job types. Were it not so awkwardly constructed, the movie might pass for a celebration of the cartel “family,” whose values the protagonists have adopted as their own.
Though Ayer started as a screenwriter (Training Day), narrative has never been his strong suit. His previous film, 2012’s End Of Watch, was an episodic LAPD two-hander that got by on its weird and occasionally wacky cinematography—the camera was mounted on everything except a tripod—and the rapport of leads Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña. Sabotage tones down the visual quirks, but drastically expands the scope. Alongside Drug War veteran John Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger, continuing his late-career reinvention as something like an actual actor) and his seven-person team (which includes Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard, and Josh Holloway) is an entire ensemble of supporting figures, played by overqualified actors like Olivia Williams, Martin Donovan, and Harold Perrineau. Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods write nearly every character as though he or she were the lead, which yields some interesting results—namely, Mirielle Enos’ performance as the team’s most unhinged member and the offbeat rapport between Williams and Perrineau, who play a pair of Atlanta homicide detectives. But the team also comes across as an indistinguishable mass of tough-guy antihero clichés. It doesn’t help that its members are referred to almost exclusively by their nicknames, which all sound the same: “Breacher,” “Monster,” “Grinder.” Any viewer who can name a single detail about Sugar (Howard)—aside from his name and the fact that he drives a red car—deserves a prize.
Besides the central crooked-agent mystery, there’s a fixation on bodily functions and dismemberment: Within the first 20 minutes, Ayer manages to work in a feces-clogged toilet, a urinal gag, two fart jokes, a trip to the sewer, and a lengthy tangent involving a bottle of piss used by a DEA agent on stake-outs. The action is strictly of the shaky cut-cut-cut variety, an approach that worked better in End Of Watch. Ayer occasionally uses the disorienting effect to create tension, as in an action sequence that is eventually revealed to be two different scenes, set days apart. But for the most part, he relies on the shock effect of blood, guts, and lens-splattering headshots. Were it not peppered with shoot-outs, Sabotage might pass for a slasher movie; it has abrupt decapitations, bodies nailed to the ceiling, corpses bobbing in a lake, and plenty of entrails. After a while, the violence begins to seem unreal, and viewers may be left wondering whether the effect is intentional, mimicking the desensitized viewpoint of the characters, or whether Ayer is merely trying and failing to shock them. In all likelihood, it’s a little of both, which really means that it’s neither. Sabotage tries to be an over-the-top loner revenge story and a you-are-there ensemble cop movie, but ends up as pulpy mush instead. It’s not that the two are incompatible; it’s that Sabotage isn’t very good at being either.