Nobody wants to out themselves as a moral scold about art, but sometimes a fella stumbles out of a thing like Sabotage and just can't form any clear thought beyond "that was vile". As a plot (super-macho DEA agents who work best outside the system are rocked by betrayal and the knowledge that someone is targeting them for murder one-by-one) it's as achingly generic as its title, totally wasting Arnold Schwarzenegger (even the aging, stiffening Schwarzenegger of the 2010s) on a "creaky, cranky old boss of the team" part that could have been played by any actor over the age of 50 without materially affecting the ultimate quality of the film.

The only thing that distinguishes it in any ways is that virtually the entire cast is made up the most deeply unpleasant people, and it's pretty clear that the film understands that they're deeply unpleasant people, except that director and co-writer David Ayer (expanding an original by Skip Woods, whose career is uniformly shitty) can't quite shake the wide-eyed, child-on-Christmas-morning awe that tends to color his depictions of the bro-ish camaraderie of people who serve in law enforcement, even when the plot hinges on the awareness that the camaraderie being depicted is objectively toxic and destructive (cf. his script for Training Day, which he did not direct, but which acutely demonstrates this tendency: the entire point of the thing is that Denzel Washington's character is actually evil, but the film keeps backing away and retrenching in a meek "but... but he's so cool!" stance). What is worst about Sabotage, though, is not that it sets up a situation which demands a collection of chilly antiheroes, only to find every possible excuse to spend time with them like they're just a collection of likable everyday joes; it's that the film has an even cruder and more reductive view of people than the characters themselves, which takes some real doing. This is a film in which everything and everyone is awful, with a specially problematic view on women: in this universe, the female gender comes in two flavors, either slutty or slutty and dangerous, the latter with a fuzzy intimation of bisexuality.

So again, moral scolding, and that's not a fun place to be. But then, this is merely my gut reaction to Sabotage; after having lived with it a little while, I am happy to observe that there is much good reason to dislike the film above and beyond its corrosive worldview. The shallowest and most inapt complaint I have is that it's a complete dud as an action film or as a thriller, which it honestly isn't trying to be. Until the very end, that is, when it very abruptly and on virtually no pretext jumps the rails from being a somber, grim study of outside-the-system agents being turned into freaked-out paranoiacs ready to jump out of their own skin into being an '80s-style Schwarzenegger vehicle with a gonzo, physically implausible car chase (one character should really have gone flying out of the back of a pick-up at least 15 or 20 times before it's all done), that is in and of itself a likeably goofy exercise in excess and kineticism, but jars horrendously with the tone of everything that has gone before; it's like the bit in Adaptation. where it goes from being a Charlie Kaufman script to a Donald Kaufman script, only in Sabotage there's absolutely no hint of a suggestion that it's being done on purpose.

Much worse is the problem that as a somber, grim study &c., the film suffers from having powerfully unconvincing characters played without a note of distinction between them. Besides Schwarzenegger, playing "Breacher", our cast includes "Monster" (Sam Worthington), "Grinder" (Joe Manganiello), "Sugar" (Terrence Howard), "Neck" (Josh Holloway), "Pyro" (Max Martini), "Tripod" (Kevin Vance), and "Lizzie" (Mireille Enos) - and if there's a more concise sign of how Sabotage conceives of its women, I don't know what it is - whose names are, by and large, the closest any of them get to a personality, and who are easier to tell apart by how they are killed than for anything they do, which raises the possibility that Sabotage is just an extravagantly cunning crypto-slasher. At any rate, they are dull people who barely register (fun game: watch the movie and then come up with the most outlandish explanation for why Terrence Howard decided to take such a meager role), except as a sort of unified field of douchey obsession with violence, drugs, and scatology, perhaps not in that order (this is a movie greatly enamored of its fart jokes). What happens to them is far too bleak and cruel for how much we are encouraged to invest in them; nor are they sketched clearly enough - besides Lizzie, whose unfathomable trashiness has a kind of negative energy that leaps off the screen more than any other character - for their moral ambiguity to play with any kind of philosophical insight. And even then, they all make far more of an impression than the cops investigating them: a paper-light Harold Perrineau, and a visibly checked-out (and monstrously overqualified) Olivia Williams, smacking out all her lines in a uniform monotone.

It doesn't help matters that they're all so damn dumb: the film opens with the team trying and failing to steal $10 million from a cartel, and it never really occurs to any of them to ask until almost all the way till the end of the movie what made the money disappear, and this is the kind of plot hole that so much of the film keeps focusing our attention on that it doesn't really count as a nitpick to bring it up (the entire first act revolves around the investigation into that $10 million - 25 solid minutes - and yet the characters who took the money never wonder where it got to?), since it so thoroughly invalidates any kind of baseline reality, not just similar to our own, but on the film's own terms. These are not people; they are plot objects, and Ayer never bothers to treat them as anything else.

There's a point to all this, spelled out leadenly in the final scene (which represents a third tonal shift, while also calling upon Schwarzenegger to do things as an actor that he is simply not equipped to do), which has to do with the corrosive effects of living surrounded by violence, even if you're trying to stop the violence; but nothing about the way the movie is handled seriously works with that theme, except as a fig leaf. There's so much that Sabotage tries to be - morality play, microscopically detailed procedural, Ten Little Indians thriller, gore effects showcase, weary autumnal role for Schwarzenegger - but none of these impulses cohere with the other, and the whole thing descends into just a couple of hours watching bad things happen to bad people. It is clumsy, minimally artful, and as pointlessly unpleasant as anything I've experienced in no small while.