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Reeling it in: The bad and the not so bad on the big screen

Posted: August 20, 2014 - 4:25pm  |  Updated: August 21, 2014 - 9:05am

“Sabotage”

Open Road Films (II)

1 hour, 49 minutes

 

“Ragnarok”

Fantefilm

 

This weekend saw the big release of “The Expendables 3,” but I just couldn’t do it. I watched “The Expendables” and was blown away by just how tired it was. I tried “Expendables 2,” but turned it off about ten minutes in. The dialogue and acting were so awful I couldn’t stand it. I heard this third outing was better, but how hard could that be? Instead of watching a substandard novelty action film starring a cinematically rejuvenated Arnold Swarzenegger, I decided to rent a recent movie starring the ex-governor that actually looked good. And then, when it turned out “Sabotage” only looked good, I decided to rent a Norwegian monster movie that actually was pretty good.

In “Sabotage,” Swarzenegger stars as “Breacher” Wharton, a tough career DEA agent who leads a rough and ready team of undercover special forces black ops cowboys. You can tell they’re not messing around by their tattoos, swagger, and, in one case, braided beard.

I should have guessed that this film, directed by David Ayer, a writer on “Training Day” as well as numerous other cop dramas, was going to be nearly unwatchable from the first few minutes where we watch Breacher watching a video where his wife is tortured and murdered by drug dealers. From there, we see Breacher and his team take down a nest of narco scum and then rip them off for ten million dollars. When the money turns up missing however, fingers start pointing among the members of the team. And before you know it, they’re pointing machine guns instead of fingers.

Not only is “Sabotage” a huge mess, it’s an ugly film. I don’t mean ugly as far as the cinematography, I mean in terms of tone and content. Ugly doesn’t necessarily mean bad, however. “Seven” is one of the best thrillers I’ve ever seen and it’s hard to think of an uglier movie than that. “Sabotage” however merely piles on the depredations, be it drugs, sex, or pointlessly gruesome gore. At one point, as investigators are searching the wreckage of a Winnebago struck by a train, we are treated to a literal pile of guts on the ground.

And that’s not the only gratuitous gut scene in the film! The writing is bad, but made worse by a purposely loose scene structure where the actors are asked to speak over one another half the time. At least the film breaks the mold of cop dramas in one way. Rather than being a straightforward tale of how a troubled cop either overcomes his demons, or gives into them, “Sabotage” makes an attempt to be an actual mystery. It stumbles big-time at the end, but by that point I was so checked out it didn’t matter.

“Sabotage” boasts an impressive cast of B-list celebrities including Terrence Howard, Sam Worthington, and “Lost’s” Josh Holloway, but the whole thing rests on Swarzenegger’s massive shoulders. He is just awful. He’s always been bad, but the problem is that he never actually acts. Every character he plays is exactly the same guy, and unlike other actors who have this same general characteristic, i.e. Clint Eastwood, Swarzenegger never, ever breaks the mold. If the guy from “Kindergarten Cop” had decided to go into Drug Enforcement instead of Elementary Enforcement, and then went through the same things Breacher did, this is how he would have turned out.

A big issue is his accent, which is, if possible, even thicker and harder to understand than it was before he was governor. He’s an actor! How is it that he’s built an entire career making English-language films while speaking only barely passable English? There are plenty of foreign actors who can do any accent you want, but Swarzenegger isn’t one of them. And maybe if there was some reason for his character to be a recently immigrated Austrian, it might make a kind of sense, but that is never the case. It’s never explained why he has such a thick accent. He was sheriff of a small West Texas town in “The Last Stand.” Really? Why did they elect a muscular Eastern European for the job?

I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but if it did it would be a worthy story point. I think the only film I’ve ever seen where I believed Swarzenegger as a character, and this includes his good films like “Predator,” “True Lies,” and “Terminator,” is the frankly substandard “Escape Plan,” with Sylvester Stallone. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him play a character who is supposed to actually be Austrian. Even in “Conan,” every other character in the film spoke with either a British or American accent. I know, I’m ranting. Suffice it to say that “Sabotage” isn’t worth the rental fee, even if dumb action is what you’re after.

Grade: D

“Ragnarok,” on the other hand, the recent Norwegian monster movie about a handful of archaeologists following a 1,000-year-old Viking legend, isn’t half bad. In Spielbergian fashion, the story follows Sig, a single-father trying to hold onto his museum-sponsored project who, spurred on by a remarkable find, packs his two children, (teen-age girl and 10-year old moppet) off to the remote Norwegian North and into a forgotten Soviet-era “no man’s land” between Russia and Norway. There they will find the answer to their mystery, but it may not be the one they were looking for.

Short and fairly straight-forward, “Ragnarok” could easily have been a straight-to-video, SyFy Channel knock-off, but for some very good performances and a surprisingly effective score, which had definite John Williams overtones. In addition to the movie’s fun and scary aspects, Sofia Helin, as field researcher Elisabeth, has some very nice, subtle yet moving moments with Sig’s children.

Things fall apart a little at the big reveal of the monster — “Ragnarok” obviously is working with a limited budget, but the problems are forgivable. After all, it could have been a lot worse — it could have starred Arnold Swarzenegger.

Grade: B

“Sabotage” is rated R for sexual situations, nudity, gore, violence, pervasive language and just being generally gratuitous.

“Ragnarok” is rated PG-13 for creature scares.

 

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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