The writing's not up to the direction or performances. The screenplay -- credited to Ayer and Skip Woods, who should have been barred from ever going near a keyboard again for having written Swordfish, A Good Day to Die Hard, and X-Men Origins: Wolverine -- is long on intrigue but short on answers. We many never know which guy wrote the line, "We just had to go fingering the Devil's pussy!" which translates roughly into human-ese as "We should not have pressed our luck." Tense action scenes contain flashbacks to other tense action scenes. That's something new. Trying to connect the windswept dots of its tangled whodunnit plot afterward, one is reminded of that story from the set of The Big Sleep, wherein director Howard Hawks and screenwriters William Faulkner and Leigh Brackett asked Raymond Chandler, whose novel they were adapting, who murdered the limo driver -- and even Chandler didn't know.

It's never boring, though, which is curious, given the slack pacing of the picture's first act. Ayer is smart enough to put the onetime Terminator (and He'll Be Back, in next year's sequel/reboot/whatever, somehow) on the defensive from the start: His squad of scuzzy drug cops is suspected of stealing $10 million during that movie-opening raid, so he's confined to desk duty, wearing a bad suit and surrounded by colleagues who think he took the money. "Look at you, vit your 48 percent body fat!" he explodes at one of them, hilariously, which is as closes as this movie gets to a one-liner.

When the internal affairs investigation is dropped for reasons never explained, there follows an interlude that finds the team -- who has been hanging out in their clubhouse with a Ronald Reagan-as-Rambo poster on the wall playing PlayStation for six months -- re-sharpening their atrophied gun-fighting skills. One has to find the tactical ins-and-outs of gun-fighting cool to stay awake through all of this, but the horrible truth about humanity is that many of us do. Eventually it turns out that a drug cartel has marked them for death, but the cartel seems to be in no particular hurry.


Directed by David Ayer
Open Road Films
Opens March 28

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Ayer is good with action; his close-quarters shoot-outs are frightening and brutal, but the geography remains clear. There's plenty of CGI blood to augment the squib-blood, but it's far removed from the meticulous, painterly spatter patterns of 300: Rise of an Empire. The most upsetting scenes of violence are those visited upon Wharton's captured wife and son, shot in shaky handheld video in a sickly low-light green. In these brief moments, Sabotage tiptoes to the edge of torture-porn genre that always seemed to me, at least, infinitely more sadistic and loathsome than the high-body-count cartoons of Schwarzenegger's heyday. You feel ashamed, just briefly, for enjoying the balance of the bloodletting so much. There are mountains of evidence that police departments around the country are increasingly using "dynamic entry" SWAT raids like the ones so lovingly depicted in this movie in situations that don't begin to warrant that level of force. What, then, are we to make of the fact that Schwarzenegger has been promoting the movie with special advance screenings for law enforcement officers -- especially in light of the fact that the DEA agents depicted here range from ethically compromised to straight-up amoral?

A year ago, The Last Stand found the Last Action Hero embracing age and reluctance, putting him at the center of an essentially warm-hearted, High Noon-style western. In its crazypants coda, Sabotage becomes a western, too, albeit of the more nihilistic Sam Peckinpah variety. Schwarzenegger isn't trying to win us over in this movie. He's a bad guy using bad guys to help him get rid of some worse guys. "I'm not like you," he tells one of them, before shooting the bastard in the head. But we can tell he doesn't really believe it.

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