I have no problem with machismo in movies. Machismo can be a lot of fun. Arnold Schwarzenegger is machismo personified. He’s macho to the point where he becomes an easy caricature. He’s the violent badass we can all enjoy guilt-free. But not everyone can handle that attitude, and as his co-stars demonstrate in David Ayer‘s Sabotage, the line between machismo and outright misogyny is a thin one. The movie puts a lot of effort into its action and professional tactics, but the supporting characters aren’t just an afterthought. They’re completely misguided weapons who earn our disdain rather than our sympathy.
John “Breacher” Wharton (Schwarzenegger) is a veteran DEA agent who leads an elite, hardcore special ops team, most of whom have comically tough nicknames: “Grinder (Joe Manganiello), “Monster” (Sam Worthington), “Neck” (Josh Holloway), “Sugar” (Terrence Howard), “Pyro” (Max Martini), as well as the regularly named “Lizzy” (Mireille Enos) even though she’s the craziest one of the bunch. During a raid on a drug house, they attempt to steal $10 million, but when they go to retrieve the money, it’s missing. Forced to lay low, the team eventually reunites only to start being picked off one-by-one. Local detective Caroline (Olivia Williams), who doesn’t get a cool nickname or even a last name, comes into investigate, and reluctantly teams up with Breacher to find out who’s murdering his team.
Sabotage completely changes in one scene. Before this scene, we can root for Breacher’s team. They’re rambunctious and rebellious, but they get the job done. They’re tactical proficiency is excellent, and it’s not like the money they’re stealing is from innocent people. But later in the film during a wake for their first fallen comrade, Caroline comes into investigate and ask some questions. At this point, the group goes from mournful renegades to engaging in a competition for who can act like the biggest date rapist. They call her a stripper more than once (she’s not even remotely dressed like a stripper, and these guys should know), keep offering her beer even though she refuses, and basically act like total dicks who don’t seem to care that someone is investigating the death of their friend. Breacher only comes off slightly better by sitting back and not actively participating, although he doesn’t command his team to stop either.
This scene reframes our view of the DEA agents. This is an elimination game where we know most of them are going to be killed, so it’s vital that we care about in order to feel the weight of every death, and become more engrossed at trying to find out who’s responsible. But from this scene onwards, their deaths become meaningless. They literally and figuratively become meat as Ayer violently dispatches them. We’re not eager to see them die; we simply don’t care anymore, and at most we have a mild curiosity about what happened to the money and who’s the killer.
Williams provides one of the film’s few saving graces as the story turns more attention to the investigation rather than the victims, and there’s still Schwarzenegger to hold everything together. He’s the rock and combined with The Last Stand and Escape Plan, the actor appears to have settled comfortably into the role of the grizzled, old soldier who can still kick ass, but not to a laughably absurd level. There’s even—dare I say it—dignity and gravitas, which is a big deal when you consider his string of flops from the mid-90s up until he became Governor of California (still weird to think he actually had that job).
Schwarzenegger can still handle the action, and Sabotage is one of his bloodiest films even though it’s actually not Schwarzenegger dishing out most of the punishment. The days of Commando and The Terminator are behind him, and Ayer puts an emphasis on the squad’s tactics (I’m not sure if they’re accurate or not, but they certainly look realistic) and a lot of gore. Schwarzenegger and Williams come out the best because their characters participate in the violence when necessary rather than being bloodthirsty adrenaline junkies.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a need for adrenaline, especially when it comes to action movies, but the person wielding the weapon is just as important as the one on the receiving end. We don’t mind if a nameless henchman gets the business, but we should put a little stock in caring about the person firing the bullet. Sabotage rests on the belief that we inherently care about Breacher’s team simply because they’re not as bad as a merciless, sadistic cartel. While we do enjoy the team’s execution of their mission, it’s tough to care about the team’s execution.