Skip to main content

You spend enough time on the job, the job bites back.

Sabotage
(2014)

Is David Ayer an on-again, off-again director or does he just get lucky despite himself? Sabotage comes along with such an apparent absence of basic filmmaking wiles, one ends up veering towards the latter conclusion; the behind the scenes wrangles might lead one to give him the benefit of the doubt, but this isn’t the first time he’s laid an egg. And, as the latest in Arnie’s damp squib of a comeback trail, it’s an ill-fitting suit for his persona yet one that’s so tone deaf as a whole his presence neither couldn’t be said to mar the surrounding material.


Ayer’s debut Harsh Times, coming off the back of acclaimed screenplays for Training Day and Dark Blue, had a number of things going for it, not least a strong performance from Christian Bale at its centre. Likewise, End of Watch worked to Ayer’s lack of strengths as a director (to the untrained eye he has no clear sense of where to place the camera, how to edit or pace a scene, or even a grip on rendering basic narrative trajectory) by adopting first person/found footage gimmickry in one of the few big screen examples that actually works. I’d presume Ayer, being a veteran and all and a proper guy (the kind who puts lily-livered actors through boot camps and getting them all barking appreciation at how he encouraged them to feel like real men), is aiming for a rawness and immediacy in his approach. The danger with that is, if you aren’t absolutely clear about what you’re aiming for and why, the results end up looking clumsy or plain amateurish.


In that sense Sabotage is a lot like Street Kings, only less proficient. Street Kings is a mess that, even though it feels like the natural relative of Sabotage, Ayer didn’t write (he probably did a pass over it, though). In both movies you have a less-than-esteemed actor (there Keanu, her Arnie) trading against an ensemble of both great and curiously cast peers in a cop movie about dirty officers and honour and the gap between. I have a lot of goodwill towards Keanu, but he doesn’t quite stick in that one. Few do, however. Chris Evans is great, but he usually is. Hugh Laurie took the peculiarly cast Brit part, which is here commandeered by Olivia Williams as a no-nonsense, acerbic homicide cop with a wandering accent who has to deal with Arnie’s reprobate semi-feral DEA task force. She also has to make out with Arnie, which will at least sets her up for chat show anecdotes for the foreseeable future (if not her entire career).


Sabotage announces itself as gritty and grim-faced but then embarks on an ever more excessive rampage of eviscerations and excitably explosive exchanges that are anything but believable. Ayer has shot himself in the foot with his eccentric casting but the concoction in general smacks of posturing and fakery, from the trying-too-hard crude talk to the nervy handheld camera and snuff videos. There’s something distasteful and borderline juvenile about the venture. If I were charitable, I’d lay the blame for the picture at the door of the producers who cut the movie against Ayer’s wishes, but there seems to me to be zero chance that this picture conceals a thee-hour director’s cut of assured tone and carefully arbitrated performances. The plot scarcely makes sense to begin with, and only becomes less intelligible as the picture progresses. That the picture is one great botch up at least means Ayer gets to claim he was stitched up.


The unseemly and incoherent plot, in brief, has Arnie’s John “Breacher” Wharton and his team under investigation after some loot goes missing from a drug cartel’s safe house. Who was actually responsible (they took it alright, but then someone whisked it away from under their noses) is anyone’s guess, but it’s soon looking very much as if the cartel knows all about what they’ve done as the team steadily loses members one by one, their entrails unspooled to scenic effect. What is actually going on is so ridiculous, it’s barely worth your time attempting to figure out, and Ayer appears to believe several miles of intestines are an appropriate substitute for a complete absence of suspense.


The divide between the actors who have signed up here thinking they’re onto something good (a talent like Ayer!) and those who are desperate is probably 50-50. Arnie, of course, has never been able to do “natural” and is utterly adrift trying to exchange banter with fellows who can actually blend in (even if it’s in service of dross). He’s also so old now that his traditional lumbering gait has been reduced to crashing about with barely any coordination. His haircut’s very silly too. And he snogs Olivia Williams. Did I mention that? Poor silly Olivia. Arnie is a man out for revenge, but he’s not really selling it, and Ayer is banal enough to serve him up a Colonel Kurtz hand-rinsing scene when we flashback to his earlier bid for justice.


Sam Worthington, who clearly isn’t going to be the next Aussie big thing any more than Eric Banana was, is filling in as many projects as he can before James Cameron turns him blue again and saves his career. This time he grows a big busy chin beard in the hope it will distract from his inability to bring anything interesting to the table. He’s just too late to guest on Sons of Anarchy, which is a shame as he has much big screen presence as Charlie Hunnam.


Big mad wolfman Joe Maganiello looks absolutely enormous even next to Arnie. He shouts and rages a lot, clearly attempting to imagine himself up there with the Austrian Oak in Predator but failing to realise this is several decades in quality apart. I guess nothing’s been quite the same for Terrence Howard since he lost the Iron Man gig. Josh Holloway is completely wasted. Which I don’t get, really; the guy has charisma to spare, so why not cast him in stuff? Then there is Mireille Enos who is utterly convincing as the utterly batshit crazy girl team member. However, it has to be said her macho-ing it up with the big boys in a sub-Vasquez Aliens manner gets old very quickly and finding out she has a drug habit gets even older quicker.


Also on board is Lucas’ fellow Lost-er Harold Perrineau (“Waaaaalllt!”) who’s good fun as Williams’ partner, certainly much more than he was on that series, and Martin Donovan, who’s everywhere these days it seems but too rarely in a role that is actually worthy of him.


Sabotage is a distasteful, unpleasant mess that reminds one of some of the less salubrious ‘80s action fodder, the Cobras of this world. It’s quite shocking how inept the debacle is. Ayer doesn’t so much ramp up action scenes at sets them off shambling and jerking about in a uncoordinated fit, accompanied by an undercooked score (from David Sardy) that sounds like a temp track drifting so far under the action you’d be forgiven for expecting a voice over to pitch in and start describing the scene. Blood seeps and pours and lacerates across the frame but to absolutely no impact. There’s a scene in which a cyclist gets bonneted on a car that proceeds to get ripped in half by a truck; in the hands of another director (Jack Sholder on The Hidden, say) this kind of hideous excess would be accompanied by a macabre sense of humour. Here it’s just ugly sensory overload to no end other than in and off itself. There’s a twist on top of the plot twist, but it leads to a scene so moronic you wonder if the reason this feels like an incoherent mumble is because Ayer and co-writer Skip Woods were making it all up as they went along.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It is the greatest movie never released, you know.

They'll Love Me When I'm Dead (2018)
(SPOILERS) They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, Morgan Neville's documentary on the making of Orson Welles' long-gestating The Other Side of the Wind, is much more interesting than the finally finished article itself, but to be fair to Welles, he foresaw as much as a possibility. Welles' semi-improvised faux-doc approach may not seem nearly as innovative nearly fifty years on – indeed, in the intervening period there's a slew of baggage of boundary-blurring works, mockumentaries and the whole found footage genre – but he was striving for something different, even if that "different" was a reaction to the hole he'd dug himself in terms of bankability. On the evidence of the completed film, he never quite found the necessary rhythm or mode, but the struggle to achieve it, as told here, is fascinating.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

Have you ever looked into a goat's eyes?

Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
(SPOILERS) There was probably an insightful, sensitive movie to be made about the World War II experiences of conscientious objector Desmond Doss, but Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge isn’t it. It’s unsurprising that a number of reviewers have independently indulged the wordplay Hackneyed Ridge, an effective summation of the ridiculously over-the-top, emotionally shameless theatrics Mel indulges, turning a story that already fell into the “You wouldn’t believe it if it wasn’t true” camp into “You won’t believe it anyway, because it’s been turned up to 11” (and that’s with Gibson omitting incidents he perceived to be “too much”, such as Doss being shot by a sniper after he was wounded, having given up his stretcher to another wounded man; certainly, as wrung through Mel’s tonal wringer, that would have been the case).

Perhaps Mel should stick to making subtitled features, the language barrier diluting the excruciating lack of nuance or subtlety in his treatment of subject m…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What if I tell you to un-punch someone, what you do then?

Incredibles 2 (2018)
(SPOILERS) Incredibles 2 may not be as fresh as the first outing – indeed, certain elements of its plotting border on the retread – but it's equally, if not more, inventive as a piece of animation, and proof that, whatever his shortcomings may be philosophically, Brad Bird is a consummately talented director. This is a movie that is consistently very funny, and which is as thrilling as your average MCU affair, but like Finding Dory, you may understandably end up wondering if it shouldn't have revolved around something a little more substantial to justify that fifteen-year gap in reaching the screen.