Arnold Schwarzenegger in Sabotage

No one makes cop movies like David Ayer. Born in Champaign but raised on the streets of LA’s South Central, he understands what makes policemen tick, so his screenplays always accumulate some emotional weight even when the situations consist of standard action-movie machismo. Most people know him for the hit thriller Training Day (2001), with Denzel Washington as a corrupt LAPD narcotics detective giving a bitter education to rookie cop Ethan Hawke. But Ayer also wrote the daring Dark Blue (2002), the only Hollywood movie to date about the 1992 riots that followed the Rodney King verdict; made his directing debut with Harsh Times (2005), a politically potent bummer about a former Army Ranger with PTSD who can’t adjust to civilian life; and delivered his best work to date with End of Watch (2012), a slice-of-life depiction of two patrolmen in South Central and the dangerous situations they race into blindly every day.

Sabotage originated as a screenplay by Skip Woods entitled Ten, in which a team of DEA agents busting a drug-cartel safe house manage to siphon off a cool $10 million to divide among themselves but then begin dying mysteriously one by one. (Or, to be more accurate, it originated as Ten Little Niggers, the 1939 Agatha Christie whodunit whose title was quickly changed to And Then There Were None.) The premise gives Ayer a more tightly plotted story than anything he’s done since Training Day, and atop it he’s layered his usual character eccentricities. Each of the renegade agents in Sabotage goes by a telling handle—Monster, Tripod, Sugar, Smoke—and despite the large ensemble cast, they’re all persuasively realized. As their commander, Breacher (Arnold Schwarzenegger), likes to tell them, they’re a family, though clearly a dysfunctional one, and armed to teeth.

I don’t subscribe to the notion of the guilty pleasure—you should own up to what you like—but I must confess that Sabotage pulled me along and stuck with me afterward even though I was generally repelled by it. Graphic torture and violence prevail, and as Oliver Stone proved with his drug-running actioner Savages, the bloody terror of the Central and South American drug cartels is so harrowing that no Hollywood movie can portray it without seeming exploitative. I hate revenge movies, and at the center of Sabotage lies a personal vendetta nursed by the commander against the cartel (with Schwarzenegger giving one of the nastiest, most frightening performances of his career). What redeems all this, to some extent, is Ayer’s bleak but honest vision; like very few action filmmakers these days, he understands how law-enforcement people witnessing the depths of humanity might lack the necessary character to climb back up.