It's a strange time to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. The one-time (and future?) Conan the Barbarian's heyday sitting astride the global box office, bounding from blockbuster to blockbuster, seems like an eternity ago. And, even weirder, his eight years as California's chief executive (yep, that actually happened) feel like they occurred in some shared fever dream that the entire country has quietly decided never to speak of again (though his signature on my San Jose State University diploma from '07 marks it as an artifact of that peculiar period).
Regardless, the past few years have been difficult ones for the Austrian Oak, with his post-statehouse return to the screen resulting in some of the weakest openings of his entire career (last year's The Last Stand opened in ninth place, and 1980s Zaki is still practically catatonic over the fact that Escape Plan, teaming Schwarzenegger AND Sylvester Stallone, bombed as spectacularly as it did Stateside). While it's long been my contention that the passage of time inevitably turns leading men into character actors, some have more success with this switch than others. For Schwarzenegger, that transition may be nigh impossible.
Thanks to his larger-than-life physique and persona, it's impossible to think of him as anything other than an indomitable he-man, even as he's entered his '60s, and the zeitgeist has largely passed by the kind of actioners that were once his bread-and-butter. In some ways, director David Ayers' Sabotage feels like an answer -- or an attempted answer -- to these concerns. It gives us an older, grayer Arnold, still imposing though not quite as invincible as he used to be, and surrounds him with equal parts '80s excess and '00s moral ambiguity.
Heading up an ensemble that includes fellow Terminator Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Lost's Josh Holloway, and The Killling's Mireille Enos, Sabotage has Schwarzenegger as John Wharton (anyone got a tally of how many "John" characters Arnold has played?), the head of a DEA strike team accused of absconding with $10 million of drug money during an operation in South America. When the members of the team start dying off one-by-one in a variety of brutal (seriously, buh-roo-tull) deaths, Wharton, known by the nickname "Breacher," must work with investigating officer Olivia Williams to unravel the mystery.
The central "whodunnit" is only mildly diverting, but Big Arnold does get some nice character beats to play here reflecting his advanced years. However, there's a weird schizophrenia to the whole thing, like Ayers (and co-writer Skip Woods) can't quite decide if this is a grounded, you-are-there experience in the vein of Ayers' previous film End of Watch, or a bonkers action movie like...well, any given Schwarzenegger flick. By the time we get to the climactic car chase (not to mention the post-climactic action sequence), Ayers has left no squib unexploded and no blood pack unburst, peppering the screen with so many body parts and viscera, you'd think you're in a Saw movie.
At one point, our characters search through the aftermath of a train collision and find a small mountain of guts. Just guts. Sitting there. In a pile. Now, don't get me wrong. In a world where studios want their movies juuuust violent enough for a PG-13 (like, say, this one), there's something deliriously subversive about how proudly Sabotage wields its R rating. And while it's too clumsy to be good, it does tie together in way that's mostly satisfying. At this stage, Arnold Schwarzenegger is playing to a very specific, narrow constituency with a pretty good idea what their ticket is buying them. I doubt they'll be disappointed with this. B-