REVIEW: 'Sabotage' ★★

Whodunit? Hard to see through all that gore

'Sabotage'

Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Sabotage." (Robert Zuckerman/Open Road Films / November 17, 2012)

There's a weird, bashful moment in "Sabotage" when Olivia Williams, atypically cast as a tough Atlanta police detective, is drawn like a moth to the flame of Arnold Schwarzenegger's lips. It's a quick bit, cut off with comical abruptness before director and co-writer David Ayer ("Training Day," "End of Watch") gets back to the business of slaughter.

Lots of it. Arnold-minded audiences eager to see him kill lots and lots of drug cartel minions should be ready for a slick, heaping helping of peppy sadism, and entrails hanging from a dead body nailed to a ceiling, and torture sequences, and numerous, digitally enhanced "kill" shots designed to move the viewer to the next level of the story, in the gamer's parlance. But a love scene between an actress in her mid-40s and an action star in his mid-60s? No way.

Terrence Howard is in "Sabotage" too, as is second-billed Sam Worthington, and "True Blood's" Joe Manganiello, all playing adrenaline-fueled Drug Enforcement Agency undercover maniacs with justifiable trust issues. Many good performers here, and they're almost reason enough to see this latest showcase for Schwarzenegger's way with a three-word line of dialogue. ("Get in there!") The acting's fine in this thing; the acting's rarely the reason a violent action movie succeeds or fails.

At least screenwriters Ayer and Skip Woods keep the moral compass spinning around in circles before selling out in the end. A "drug war god," John "Breacher" Wharton is the Schwarzenegger role. He's left wifeless and sonless by bloodthirsty cartel goons. Months later Breacher and his DEA team execute a bust at the home of a drug lord whose mansion looks suspiciously like a suburban Atlanta model home. (The film was made in tax-incentive-friendly Georgia.) Breacher and company squirrel away $10 million in drug money for their own private stash, but somebody gets to the money before they do. Time passes, as time does, and a member of Breacher's team dies under mysterious circumstances. Then another one is found nailed to a ceiling and gutted. "Like a deer," one character notes.

As "Sabotage" turns into the most violent Agatha Christie whodunit imaginable, Ayer injects a modicum of malignant energy in the hopped-up, uncontrollable behavior of Breacher's gang, as they kill time between assignments, or just kill, kill, kill, and then go to strip clubs. The movie wants it both ways: bloodthirsty revenge and some finger-wagging about the tactics. The real mystery, for me, relates to Arnold's hair colors — jet black up top, gray around the sideburns, a malty-wheat tone for the eyebrows. Martin Donovan has a couple of boilerplate scenes as Arnold's superior. It's amusing to watch an amusing actor try to wring some juice out of essentially juice-free material. It's less amusing to contemplate how much further an R-rated kill-'em-up can go in the blood-spritz department.

mjphillips@tribune.com

"Sabotage" - 2 stars

MPAA rating: R (for strong bloody violence, pervasive language, some sexuality/nudity and drug use)

Running time: 1:49

Opens: Friday

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