Loving Arnold Schwarzenegger can sometimes mean loving repetition. There are distinct phases to the action legend’s career where he shifts gears & tries new types of films, but he’s pretty much consistently the same old Arnold in each role. Whether it’s The Running Man, Commando, or Kindergarten Cop, all wildly different films, he’s pretty much consistently the spotless tough guy with a great sense of comic timing & an unexplained Austrian accent. It’s been interesting to see, though, where he wants to go with his career in its latest phase. The post-gubernatorial, elderly Arnold is a strange bird, one that’s difficult to pigeonhole just yet. In projects like Terminator Genisys & The Last Stand, it definitely feel like he’s slipping back into his old ways, but then there’s more out-there choices like this year’s zom-drama Maggie, which showed him playing tender & quietly pensive. I didn’t enjoy Maggie very much on the whole, but I did respect Arnold’s vulnerability in getting out there & trying something new at this late stage of his career, even if he was disappointingly quiet & inexpressive in that role.
It wasn’t until I saw last year’s Sabotage that I got a glimpse of where I’d love Arnold’s career to go. Playing a crooked, disgraced DEA agent who heads an out-of-control crew that has devolved more or less into a gang, Arnold subverts his eternally unblemished good guy routine for the first time I can remember since The Terminator. And he does it so well. There’s something so satisfying to see him pull a (to borrow a pro wrestling term) heel-turn at this point of his career & play a cigar-chomping scumbag driven out of his mind by the violence of Mexican drug cartels. It’s already a little jarring to watch him head a team instead of falling into his usual lone wolf Commando routine, but it’s even more jarring to watch him head a team of such hopeless reprobates.
The catch with Sabotage is that Arnold is far from the film’s only scumbag. The entire film is just oozing with scum. I felt dirty just watching it. With character names like “Breacher” & “Grinder” and a visual palette that makes time to include blood, shit, and viscera, Sabotage is an ugly, ugly film. Much like with Swordfish & See No Evil, it’s the kind of movie where nearly every line of dialogue is loaded with an insult. Characters constantly call each other “assholes” & “crackwhores” and command each other to “Shut the fuck up” or “Wake up, you drunk fuck” or to quit “fingering The Devil’s pussy.” It’s far from a pleasant film & I wasn’t surprised to learn afterwards that the dude who wrote & directed it was also responsible for penning both Training Day & that upcoming Suicide Squad movie. David Ayer apparently has an eye & an ear for the grotesque and from what I’ve seen from his work this kind of nastiness is something he brings to the screen often.
The only truly remarkable thing about Sabotage‘s nastiness is that it managed to drag Schwarzenegger through the mud with it. This is far from the actor’s first ultraviolent rodeo, but his bloody action films usually have a sort of detached, cartoonish nature to them that’s intentionally missing here. Although Arnold’s shown chomping cigars & pumping iron in Sabotage, he’s almost unrecognisable as the film’s King Scumbag. I honestly appreciated that about the film. Its I Know What You Did Last Summer revenge plot was tolerable, but not exactly thrilling, and it was severely lacking for a single pleasant image or line of dialogue or any ray of sunshine, really to break through its deeply nasty, garbage water pessimism, but Arnold’s performance kinda made up for those shortcomings. There’s a really interesting idea at the heart of the way he plays villain here & I’d love to see that thread explored in other, more easy-to-stomach projects in the future.