The new Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle, “Sabotage,” is stupid, sadistic, misogynistic, confusing, and more than a little ridiculous. Here’s the thing, though: It keeps you watching, if only to see how tortured the plot or characters are going to get. I’m not sure that “entertainingly awful” is a recommendation, but the shoe fits.
It helps that some A-list talents are involved. A-minus, anyway. Director David Ayer, who co-scripted with Skip Woods, wrote Denzel Washington to an Oscar in “Training Day” and made a more than credible directorial debut with 2012’s “End of Watch.” Call “Sabotage” a case of sophomore slump, although sophomore sludge is more like it.
Schwarzenegger, who more than ever resembles a side of Black Forest ham, plays John “Breacher” Wharton, leader of an undercover team of DEA bad boys. A swaggering, tatted-up crew of reprobates, you might even confuse them with the villains, since they pilfer $10 million for themselves during a raid on a drug lord’s mansion. The money is sent down a clogged toilet to a waiting sewer pipe. The movie keeps threatening to follow.
But someone gets to the loot first, and then, after a desultory FBI investigation, members of Breacher’s team start dying in extremely bloody ways — pulverized by an onrushing train, disemboweled and nailed to the ceiling . . . that sort of thing. Is it a vengeful Guatemalan cartel or someone closer to home?
“Sabotage” gets a lift — the movie’s only lift, really — when the talented British actress Olivia Williams (“Rushmore,” “An Education”) turns up, mangling a Southern accent as no-nonsense Atlanta homicide detective Caroline Brentwood. She’s towing a droll Harold Perrineau (“Lost”) as a colleague, and she stands up to Breacher’s mind games with stubborn poise. Williams’s scenes with Schwarzenegger are a hoot, a tango between a greyhound and a bull. There’s a romance, but it’s mercifully brief; in general, this is one of those manly movies in love with violence and terrified of sex. Even the strippers keep their clothes on.
Ayer directs with style, very little sense, and a wheelbarrow full of blood squibs. When he tries parallel-editing between present and past, “Sabotage” temporarily falls to the ground and can’t get up. But the movie keeps moving somehow, and the overacting is at times fascinating. A solid performer like Terrence Howard, playing one of Breacher’s crew, can get lost in the shuffle, but a bad one, like Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) as the most sensitive of the team (i.e., the Wimp), can rise to the occasion with spirited mediocrity.
Mireille Enos — she played Brad Pitt’s wife in “World War Z” — deserves special mention for what might be called Xtreme Acting as Lizzy, the DEA squad’s one woman. The character starts out in high boil and proceeds from there, building to a pitch of pure, lunatic hissy-fit. We salute her commitment.
Arnold? He mostly stands around smoking his cheroot, letting the kids carry the action, and wondering if he has his career back yet. “The Terminator” has never seemed further in the past; “Predator” is a miracle of concision next to this. Breacher’s backstory has aspects of shame and humiliation, about which the man playing him must know something, but Schwarzenegger remains impassive throughout, whether his character’s criticizing an FBI agent for having “40 percent body fat” (!) or re-watching the tape of his wife being tortured to death by Central American drug lords. Maybe that’s just video night at his house.
At one point in “Sabotage,” one of the DEA team says to Breacher, “What happened? We used to be good at this.” The star looks at him as if he has no idea what he’s talking about. But you will.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.