Since I’m usually so focused on the task at hand, typically there are only two reasons I’ll move my eyes from the screen to the clock when I’m viewing a film I’m planning to cover.
Obviously the first reason is the most relatable one of potential boredom as we can’t help but eye the watch on our wrist or the ticking clock on the wall to see not only how much time has gone by but also how much time we have left to endure.
But much more specific to the job – the second reason I find myself sneaking a peek at the advancing numbers on my TV, Blu-ray or computer display is to check the plot points, new inciting incidents, or other obvious remnants of the Syd Field lectured three-act formulaic screenwriting structure that’s been around for decades. For while a good film hooks you regardless, it’s amusing to see just how many writers still follow those age-old rules so closely that you can darn near predict what the clock will read before your eyes even leave the frame.
Every moviegoer can relate to the first conundrum of wondering (at least a few times in their lives) whether they should just walk out of a film or gamble that the boredom will subside. However, as someone who started out writing movies and enjoyed breaking down the expected narrative approach to creatively illustrate everything from the passing of time to employing a constantly shifting point of view (vs. using an extraneous character or overt exposition to tell us the exact same information), the second is a secreenwriter’s habit that I can’t seem to shake.
Yet although I’m normally very open-minded and wholeheartedly stand behind artistic freedom of expression, upon watching David Ayer’s Sabotage, I discovered a third reason to clockwatch.
An accurate title given the way that Ayer seems intent on purposely sabotaging his own film, Sabotage is filled with gruesome visuals that rub salt in the eye of the viewer as well as entire conversations comprised of profanity laced weirdly sexual verbal “dick measuring” where anatomically obsessed scatology and hyper masculine homophobia is king.
Needless to say, among other effects, the biggest impact of such a sabotaged sensory overload is that it overwhelms anything of importance that Ayer was trying to say as a writer as well as a director.
Bringing a script to life that must’ve been typed with venom rather than ink, I actually found myself losing a little respect for the talented cast members who gave in to the promise of a big payday instead of immediately walking right off the set.
Loud, vile, repugnant trash – Ayer managed to do the impossible in turning this ordinarily open-minded viewer into the “content police” wherein absolutely bored by the shots of excrement, disembowelments, and the degradation of its female characters, I began keeping a tally of how much excess Ayer and his co-writer Skip Woods could fit into the film in the margin of my notes.
Alarmingly, I lost track of tally marks within the first half hour and realized that if someone did the same and substituted a shot of liquor for each tally to turn it into a drinking game, they’d be in dire need of an emergency room by the time that Sabotage reached its halfway point.
And it’s a damn shame too for while a friend jumped ship within fifteen minutes and left me to fill her in, I found that against all odds (and their bizarre attempts at self-sabotage), Ayer and Woods had some truly clever twists in store that finally started to reveal themselves in a genuinely surprising penultimate showdown.
While otherwise bookended with revenge genre predictability, the twist before the finale illustrates how much potential Sabotage actually had as a police thriller that had been buried beneath the filthy rubble and squandered somewhere along the way from initial script to final cut.
Unfortunately as it stands, Training Day scribe Ayer’s Sabotage is a mind-numbingly misogynistic, misanthropic, uber-masculine mess. In what has become a through-line in Ayer’s oeuvre of cynical, corruption-heavy portraits of those along the thin blue line that live in a permanent state of gray, Sabotage once again makes every one of its characters seem like degenerate creeps while perpetuating an insulting law-enforcement stereotype that he’d at least started to change in his earlier End of Watch.
Yes, Watch was gritty but more importantly it was still humanistic as a grandly plotted ode to what it truly means to not only protect and serve but live with the constant stress level of adrenaline, caffeine, and the unknown waiting on the other end of each call.
Sadly, this film takes a thousand steps backwards not only simply in its portrayal of anti-heroic leads but mainly because those who populate Sabotage are nowhere near as realistically three-dimensional as the men and women of Watch.
Essentially walking cutouts that would be interchangeable if not for the talented stars embodying each role from Mireille Enos and Terrence Howard to Sam Worthington and Olivia Williams, the film revolves around ethically challenged, mostly militarily trained heavy-hitters who work for the DEA task force that’s run by Arnold Schwarzenegger’s angry widower Breacher Wharton.
After seeing his wife and son slaughtered before his eyes on the video that opens the film and sets the stage for the brutal battles that follow, the aptly named Breacher breaches the rules, ripping off ten million dollars in drug money with his loyal team of diehards after an undercover sting before the loot promptly disappears.
What could’ve been a taut heist film turned thriller as in the aftermath the members of the squad start losing their lives in a series of strange and shockingly graphic slaughters (driving a wedge into the depraved team as they wonder if one of their own is to blame) instead is shortchanged by its emphasis on all the wrong elements.
While one of the ultimate reveals is a humdinger of a misdirect, instead of keeping us on our toes with red-herrings and new revelations, Ayer and Woods are content to focus purely on the blood red attacks derived from the potential promise of green cash rather than a character driven plotline.
Hindered by wooden line reads from Schwarzenegger and a dubiously crafted character for Williams, the chemistry between the two is so embarrassingly absent that Sabotage’s editor Dody Dorn simply cuts a scene in half rather than even attempt to see them romantically connect on a human vs. hardass level.
When you couple this with the men’s insistence to turn Enos into a bizarrely forceful sexual aggressor along with their overreliance on forced locker room talk to establish male camaraderie, Sabotage comes off like a secretly closeted gay guy who laughs a little too loudly at his own juvenile homophobic jokes. And indeed, from Arnold Schwarzenegger's phallic cigar to the boyish haircut of his love interest, it's a borderline parody of Top Gun proportions.
A film that’s better off ignored in favor of watching the minutes tick by on your wristwatch, Ayer’s one-trick Training Day shtick has grown old after a decade of retreads like this work which couldn’t look murkier if the film was actually dragged through the mud.
Instead of Sabotage, opt for another viewing of Ayer’s End of Watch to appreciate the level of talent he is capable of and then follow it up with an old classic work of Film Noir's heist subgenre from those who did it right in The Asphalt Jungle or The Killing or go on a French crime spree with Rififi or Bob Le Flambeur.
Ultimately spending more time to study the good and less time looking at something this bad will then inspire you to contemplate just how good Sabotage could’ve been with a much stronger script.
And rather than continue the sabotage by mindlessly manufacturing more of the same, I can only hope the otherwise gifted Ayer will look to past filmmakers for inspiration instead of focusing only on the films of his own past in order break new ground.
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