Today I wanna talk about David Ayer’s Sabotage (2014), a film that I stumbled across a couple of nights ago on demand TV. So, David Ayer has been in the news a fair bit lately because he directed one of this year’s highest anticipated blockbusters, Suicide Squad (2016). His writing chops includes Training Day (2001) for which Denzel Washington won an Academy Award for Best Actor, and whose film, Fury (2014), is getting a lot of attention now with critics reversing their previously low opinion to hold it in higher regard.
When Sabotage came out in 2014, it was also on the receiving end of a lot of vitriol from film reviewers that gave it a 20% score on Rotten Tomatoes and only 1.5 stars on the Roger Ebert website.
But when I watched it, I found myself captivated not just by the amount of blood and gore onscreen but the interesting editing choices, the multiple intersecting plots, the refreshing female roles and candid dialogue.
Sabotage is about a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Task Force unit led by John ‘Breacher’ Wharton (Arnold Schwarzenegger). The film starts with the team bringing down a cartel and skimming $10million off the top of the cartel’s drug money for themselves. When they return later to collect the cash they stashed for themselves, they find it missing. To add insult to injury, not only is the cash never recovered, the whole team undergoes an 8-month investigation where they are taken out of active duty and Team Leader Wharton is slapped with a boring desk job.
Where things start to get interesting is after internal affairs pulls the investigation. Before the team can get their skills up to scratch again, members start getting taken out one by one in the most gruesomely creative cartel fashions ever that involve being nailed to the ceiling, disembowelment, and some chicken wire.
While the blood and gore kept my attention on a superficial level, some of the things that really stood out to me was the constant tension that came from trying to figure out who was killing these highly trained, hyper-violent individuals. I was pleasantly surprised when I was reading up on the film to find out that the original title of the film was supposed to be Ten after Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, also known as, Ten Little Indians. While David Rooney from The Hollywood Reporter felt the film lost its way, I thought the film stayed pretty true to form.
At one point, the idea was floated that given the unusually gruesome nature of the murders, perhaps the team is being targeted for revenge by one of the many cartels they’ve brought down previously. Before long, the question is raised about whether this is over the $10million that went missing and maybe it is specifically this last cartel they took down 8months ago coming back to get their money.
However, because of the amount of narrative attention devoted to developing the characters in the DEA Task Force, it becomes clear to the audience that the threat is internal. More than that, we’re led to believe that the prime suspect is Wharton. This red herring is set up in various ways:
- With the unexplained grainy footage that Wharton watches that opens the film of a woman being tortured
- Wharton is also singled out by internal affairs as the ring-leader/prime suspect for having taken the money
- Wharton’s willingness to help Det. Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams), lead detective on the DEA agents’ deaths, investigate the deaths of his team members. Cuz the perps always try and insert themselves into the investigation, right?
- The edititing, specifically the intercuts used when Wharton accompanies Det. Brentwood to call on Bryce ‘Tripod’ McNeely (Kevin Vance). The intercuts used in the sequence where Wharton explains the booby traps around McNeely’s trailer to scenes where the traps have been triggered in an earlier attack on McNeely, seemed to suggest that Wharton had an unusual amount of foreknowledge, as if he was there when the attack happened.
All of this successfully set Wharton up as the red herring, except, we find out at the end, that Wharton really took the money! What he isn’t doing is killing his own teammates. This conflation and uncoupling of the two crimes – the theft of the $10million and the murders – leaves audiences feeling oddly bereft because the $10mil was supposed to be the motive for the gruesome murders. Without this motive, the murders double up as not just gruesome to look at but meaningless as well. My guess is that this unsatisfying ending is what leaves a lot of critics floundering and crying foul.
Is it weird that instead of this reveal making me feel unsatisfied and angry at David Ayer and Skip Wood (the scriptwriters), it just made me think of The Maltese Falcon (1941)?
Listen. This isn’t a damned bit of good. You’ll never understand me, but I’ll try once more… When a man’s partner is killed he’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it. Then it happens we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed it’s bad for business to let the killer get away with it… Third, I’m a detective and expecting me to run criminals down and then let them go free is like asking a dog to catch a rabbit and let it go. It can be done, all right, and sometimes it is done, but it’s not the natural thing… Fourth, no matter what I wanted to do now it would be absolutely impossible for me to let you go without having myself dragged to the gallows with the others. Next, I’ve no reason in God’s world to think I can trust you and if I did this and got away with it you’d have something on me that you could use whenever you happened to want to… Sixth… since I’ve got something on you, I couldn’t be sure you wouldn’t decide to shoot a hole in me some day… it’s easy to be nuts about you… but I don’t know what that amounts to. Does anybody ever? But suppose I do? What of it? Maybe next month I won’t… Well, if I send you over I’ll be sorry as hell – I’ll have some rotten nights – but that’ll pass… If that doesn’t mean anything to you forget it and we’ll make it this: I won’t because all of me wants to – wants to say to hell with the consequences and do it – and because – God damn you – you’ve counted on that with me the same as you counted that with the others… I won’t play the sap for you.
– Sam Spade, The Maltese Falcon
It’s that sort of grappling to find a reason that Sam Spade exhibits at the climax of The Maltese Falcon that came back to me as I watched Sabotage. Maybe this is just because of my weirdly associative mind, but this is also a way to think about the writing of the film not as bad or confused but as deliberately meaningless to highlight a hollowness, a loss, an absence at the centre of the human condition by emptying the most gruesome of crimes of motive and meaning.
What you then have is that even after the big reveal, there is a lack of closure and this is reflected in other aspects of the film, like in the DEA Task Force itself. A supposedly government sanctioned operation and task force, created with the express purpose of protecting the public and upholding law and order, filled with individuals whom by ordinary standards are more villainous than heroic. Their hyperviolence, loose morals, thieving, drinking, substance abusing, hypersexed mannerisms make them highly unlikeable and unsuited for the role of heroes. Instead, they seem to embody more the Friedrich Nietzsche quotation,
“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” – Beyond Good and Evil, Aphorism 146
The DEA Task Force, that cracks down on cartels, is filled with individuals who themselves behave more like drug lords than anyone would like to admit. This set up points towards the slippages in moral standards, and explodes the essentialist notion of “hero” and “villain” being fundamentally different. Instead, this group of characters draw attention to the fact that these dichotomies are false and that there is no hard divide or insurmountable gulf between them. By recognising that “hero” and “villain” are but poles along a continuum, the film forces audiences to reassess the definition of both hero and villain thereby turning terms we were once sure of into open-ended concepts up for debate.
As a final note on characters, I did thoroughly enjoy the female characters in this film. They were tough, rugged, not particularly sexy but clearly having sex, flawed, and damaged but in ways completely unrelated to which man they were fucking. And that is fucking refreshing.
I especially liked that Lizzy Murray (Mireille Enos), was a real tough woman. She was all sharp angles, freckled skin, frizzy hair, and lean muscle – and this is one of the things I really appreciated about the actress because she looked like she worked out. Kinda like the way Linda Hamilton looked when she played Sarah Conner in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991). And exactly like a woman in this line of work should look. I liked that she could have passed as one of the guys in terms of how the character carried herself and how she spoke (equally potty-mouthed and equally comfortable with the sexual banter the team engaged in amongst themselves) and that the only marker of her gender was that she was married to someone else on the team, James ‘Monster’ Murray (Sam Worthington).
Likewise with Det. Caroline Brentwood. Her unflappability in the face of sexual slurs, dangling entrails and a faceful of blood was admirable. The fact that she sleeps with Wharton and it’s a throwaway event in the plot, casually inserted without any romance tied to it made me think of the scripting as very progressive in terms of its very equitable treatment of male and female characters’ view of sex.
Yup, that’s it from me about Sabotage. Tell me if you liked my take on it, agreed or disagreed with it or if you want me to write for you because I’m still trawling for a paying writing gig. Thanks.