Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up in person for a surprise appearance at the preview showing of Sabotage I went to in Chicago. As excited attendees snapped his picture and costar Joe Manganiello towered over him, he channeled his inner politician and burbled out a brief, impromptu paean to the law-enforcement community, rolling out clichés in rapid-fire succession: The police are brave, they keep us safe, there are other places in the world without security and you wouldn't want to live there. Schwarzenegger also mentioned his father who was in law enforcement, and talked about how much he loved playing police officers. I half expected him to run up the aisle, find a cinema security guard, and give him or her a great big kiss just to show how much he adores folks in uniform.
Schwarzenegger's insistence that he is pro-law-enforcement seemed bizarrely desperate—until the movie started. You don't need to get far into Sabotage to realize that its stars' enthusiasm for the law enforcement community is not necessarily shared by director/writer David Ayer. The first scene shows us a raid by John "Breacher" Wharton (Schwarzenegger) and his elite DEA unit—a raid in which those "elite" agents methodically and shamelessly steal drug money.
Sabotage isn't just about some cops gone bad. It strongly suggests that the problem isn't a few rotten apples, but the whole barrel. Breacher's unit doesn't just steal; they consistently act like thugs, interacting in a perpetual fog of dudebro banter, macho posturing, and entitled rudeness. When they're not cracking fart jokes, they're paying strippers and gratuitously bullying civilians. Lizzy (played with gleeful manic raunch by Mireille Enos) has a massive substance-abuse problem, which distinguishes her from her fellow agents only in that the substance she abuses isn't alcohol.
Various members of the team, when confronted, rant vaguely about how they need to be dirty and mean to fight the dirty mean baddies, a la Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men. But it's hard to take that seriously when, as the going gets tough, the supposedly tough drug warriors turn on one another like frightened dogs. "We're not a team anymore; we're just a gang," one of them whimpers to Breacher, but there's plenty of evidence that they were always just a gang, held together by personal loyalty and a shared love of violence and power.
The film is based on Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, and you'd think the puzzle-box murder plot, with its predictably unpredictable switchbacks and blind alleys, might feel contrived or incongruously playful in such a cynical film. But it quickly becomes clear that the point here is not so much to find the bad guy as to demonstrate that all of our "protagonists" are, basically, murderers. When they're storming buildings to point their guns at eight-year-olds or engaging in high-speed car chases with gruesome collateral civilian death tolls, does it really matter all that much who's the culprit behind this killing or that killing? "Serve and protect" in Sabotage is less a promise than a threat, and even cops of pure intentions, like homicide investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) end up abetting the dispensation of violence, not justice.
Schwarzenegger himself is perfectly cast, precisely because (as he said in his intro speech) he so often plays the noble cop or its equivalent. The good will from all his past films gives a bite to each of his many betrayals, while his limited emotional range comes serves as an asset: Theft, manipulative seduction, cold-blooded murder—none of them register on his face at all. He remains Arnold Schwarzenegger, perfect hero, even as he reveals himself to be a completely untrustworthy and manipulative scumbag.
Breacher isn't simply a "bad guy" though. As is the way with these things, he is provided a tragic backstory, with the horrible deaths of his family serving as motivation for his numerous sins. In most films, the rape/revenge narrative would be exculpatory; violence as just response to violence while the audience pumps its fists. In Sabotage, though, the plot is too circuitous to give you that adrenaline rush of fitting finality, especially with all the collateral damage along the way. When Schwarzenegger in cowboy hat finally gets to the place where Morricone-esque music plays on the soundtrack and bad guys start falling like cordwood, it feels almost like parody, as if someone has tacked an action-movie finish onto a whodunit because they knew that that was what the audience expected. Any number of bodies and corruption is justified, the film seems to sneeringly suggest, if we get to participate in the cowboy dream of righteous carnage, and watch the iconic hero bathe in the blood of various ethnic others.
Amid the bloodshed, Breacher pauses to tell his antagonist that they are not alike. The evil men are sadists and kill innocents; Breacher kills only the guilty and only in the name of good. It's a standard Hollywood moral and one that, judging from his opening monologue, Schwarzenegger would have been more comfortable with. Sabotage, though, to its credit, doesn't believe it.