This weekend Arnold Schwarzenegger will be 66 years and eight months old: exactly two-thirds of a century since he arrived on this planet from some far-off steroid asteroid, and about one-third of a century since Conan the Barbarian certified the champion muscle man as a movie star. Though he doesn’t take off his shirt in the new thriller Sabotage, he still looks carved from some alien granite, still walks with a seismic stride, still occupies the center of a film with a sullen, don’t-dare-call-it-silly gravitas that makes the fine craft of movie performing seem like work for a girly-man. He doesn’t act, he just is; and that’s what’s needed in a medium that values charisma over finesse. Unlike the smoother, updated, humanized version — Dwayne Johnson — Arnold is his own, old-school special effect: the Rock of Aged.
After two terms as California’s Governator, Schwarzenegger slipped comfortably back into pictures with The Last Stand, a modern Western, then crammed into the wide screen, as if it were a service elevator, with fellow ’80s muscle car Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan. Now he fronts David Ayer’s Sabotage, an enjoyably gruesome throwback to the grindhouse B movies of the ’70s and ’80s, Arnold’s early American prime.
He plays DEA legend John Wharton — another bland American name (like The Last Stand’s Ray Owens) that seems invented for the Austrian star by some impish official in a witness protection program — leading a team of undercover agents. They have been accused of stealing $10 million in a Mexican cartel drug bust and, months later, are being murdered, with extreme prejudice, one by one.
So stalwart is Schwarzenegger’s reputation, and so grim his visage, that Hollywood is afraid to tell him that most action movies now tiptoe toward a prissy PG-13 rating. Sabotage, bless its black heart and atavistic brain, wears the R rating proudly, like Curt Schilling with his bloody sock in the heroic (or catastrophic) 2004 MLB playoffs, when the Red Sox fought back from three games behind to take the Yankees. If Mexican thugs are to be slaughtered, as in the film’s first and last action scenes, their craniums will pop off in instant lobotomies. If a DEA agent is to be killed, he will get nailed to a ceiling, his guts hanging out to entangle investigators (in one of the few movie scenes that justifies the adjective “riveting”). This is not your maiden aunt’s or airplane edit of an action film. It’s the real, pulpy deal.
How ’80s is Sabotage? Wharton’s rowdy colleagues — including James “Monster” Murray (Sam Worthington), Joe “Grinder” Phillips (Joe Manganiello), Julius “Sugar” Edmonds (Terrence Howard), Tom “Pyro” Roberts (Max Martini) and Bryce “Tripod” McNeely (Kevin Vance), plus Monster’s red-haired wife Lizzie “No Nickname” Murray — spend their down time in a rec (or wreck) room adorned with the famous poster of Reagan as Rambo. Their hobbies are getting stoned and tattooed; they are so devoted to the Method of undercover work that, even off the job, they strut like biker outlaws. In this crimson Agatha Christie mystery, any one of them could be the next victim or — if the perp is not a Oaxaca drug lord but a DEA insider — the mastermind killer. (The movie’s third act contains a neck-snapping plot swerve that Ayer will have to explain on the DVD commentary, so the rest of us understand it.)
Wharton, who goes by “Breacher,” has none of his team’s louche vices. A generation older, he is sobered by mourning: his wife (Catherine Dyer) had been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a cartel baddie who thoughtfully sent Wharton his wife’s snuff video, which our hero studies as if it were the Zapruder film. We are made to watch too, to underline that this time it’s personal and that an action hero has no purer motive than revenge, whatever means he employs to realize it. In this remorseless genre, wives serve only as captives or corpses. Mrs. W is both. She also has to be dead so that Wharton can forge a working and implicitly erotic relationship with the sturdy FBI lady (Olivia Williams) sleuthing the DEA-dead case.
Ayer, who wrote the script with Skip Woods, has spent more movie time with rogue cops than an Internal Affairs investigator. He wrote Training Day, with Denzel Washington as the slippery malefactor, and directed Street Kings, in which Keanu Reeves was the officer working outside the rules. (Reeves also had a dead wife to avenge.) Ayer’s last film, End of Watch, was a gritty, dewy tribute to the L.A.P.D. that ran aground in its faux found-footage format. Sabotage is more conventional in its camera style, more vivid and cynical in its appreciation of the resources a man (or woman) needs to carry a gun in the name of the law and decides who dies.
The movie answers a few questions that rarely get asked but have piquant answers. Like: How do you keep a body you buried at sea from floating to the surface? (By binding it in chicken wire.) Long on heated insult and short on banter, the dialogue avoids punch lines even when they’re expected. The DEA inquiry into the lost $10 million is suddenly dropped, and Wharton’s superior (Martin Donovan) asks, “Do you have a photo of a Congressman f—ing a goat?” You expect him to reply, “I’ve got a hundred of them,” but he flashes a tight smile, which may be a grimace, and remains mute.
Arnold does get to accuse one overweight inquisitor of having “48 percent body fat.” The flab level of Sabotage is considerably lower. For those who wishes they could have sat in on the enhanced interrogation of terror suspects, it’s a decent ride — familiar, massive and watchable, like the Easter Island statue who stars in it. Happy next third of a century, you brute. May your brand of B movie never be terminated.