Quentin Tarantino cast a long shadow over 90s action cinema. You all know this, but “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction” established a template which a horde of lesser talents used to make a seemingly endless series of movies with wisecracking pop culture referencing central partnerships, verbose villains with weird little tics and quirks, near-autistic “heroes”, standoffs and super-bloody set-pieces. There’s more mainstream ones like “Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead”, “Two Days In The Valley” and “Get Shorty”; less mainstream ones like “Coldblooded” and “Palookaville”; and absolute garbage like “8 Heads In A Dufflebag” and “Very Bad Things” (although I’ll never watch it again, I thoroughly enjoyed “Boondock Saints”, ignore all the asshole reviewers who loved it at the time but want to convince you it’s garbage now).
I’m just listing movies (sorry) because I’m still trying to figure out how to describe this, and hope you’d be distracted – plus, I’ve seen a lot of too-cool 90s garbage. “Sabotage” is the work of two people long-term readers will be familiar with – director Tibor Takacs, who’s behind ISCFC favourites “Mansquito” and “Ice Spiders”; and star Mark Dacascos, from “Drive”, “Kickboxer 5” and “Double Dragon”. Not two names you’d associate with Tarantino-esque thrillers, I think you’ll agree, but read on. Or don’t. I get paid the same (£0) either way!
Starting off in the first Bosnia / Serbia war, Bishop (Dacascos) is a sniper / general badass who is so awesome he survives an encounter meant to kill him – first, an almost impossible rescue mission, followed by a freelance assassin (Tony Todd) shooting him seven times, then blowing up the building he was in, while walking away. Quick aside: when was the first incidence of the “guys walking away from explosions” thing? TV Tropes calls it the “Unflinching Walk” and the earliest example they provide is from “Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins” in the late 80s. Anyone got an earlier one?
Anyway, this is a fun opening, but we’re immediately whisked to the present day (well, 1996) where Bishop is now a sharp-dressed bodyguard for the Trents, a couple of billionaire arms dealers. Tony Todd, in what you imagine must be a heck of a coincidence, has been tasked with killing the Trents just a few weeks after Bishop started working for them…of course there are no coincidences in this world. Bishop manages to save the wife, but the killing of the husband and a few of his other bodyguards brings in the FBI, in the shape of Agent Castle (Carrie-Anne Moss, a few years before “The Matrix” would briefly elevate her into the A-list).
Around here is where my notes run out, because the film becomes one of those pointlessly convoluted crime dramas so beloved of the time. Castle’s boss has some weird relationship with CIA guy – and extremely obvious villain – Nicholas Tollander (Graham Greene); then there’s Bishop’s old mentor Follenfant (John Neville), who has a younger Dacascos lookalike as his manservant / eye candy. I guess the implication is that Follenfant did more than just mentor Bishop? No-one seems unhappy about the arrangement, so it’s hard to tell. Anyway, he knows more than he’s letting on, and then there’s Todd and who he’s working for, and who the FBI guy is working for, and why “they” didn’t kill Bishop when they had the chance. Considering pretty much everyone but Bishop and Castle are scum, the reveals, when they come, are like “oh, that bastard is dead now. Never mind”.
One of this movie’s redeeming features is the quality of the cinematography, courtesy of the extremely busy Curtis Petersen. Everything looks chilly and miserable, and even though there’s a slight overuse of the bullet-POV cam, the atmosphere created by his filming and lighting elevates what is as generic a thriller as they come. When you have a couple of old hands like him and Takacs in charge, at least things will look okay and have a beginning, middle and end. Don’t laugh – as our previous reviews will testify, that’s far from being a sure thing.
Dacascos is great in this – for a guy who’s a fantastic martial artist, he only has two (fairly short) fights, having to get by on his acting. Curious choice, but one that works, and he solves way more problems with his brain than he does with his fists. Everyone else feels a little too…written? Like they’re speaking lines that sound too clever-clever, not quite right when said out loud, if that makes sense. The writers are Rick Filon (who wrote “Kickboxer 5” for Dacascos, and never worked again after this) and Michael Stokes, who’s done nothing but kids stuff since the turn of the millennium.
“Sabotage” feels like a movie trapped between two stools. Like, it was going to be a straight Dacascos ass-kicking fest until the enormous success of “Pulp Fiction” made them retool it to go for that dollar. Or it was going to be a chilly, cool thriller until one of the producers went “we got Dacascos!” and they altered it to play to his strengths. There’s a whole chess thing (Bishop and Castle, plus the main villain is referred to as the “White Queen”) which isn’t really developed, and the end is just twist, twist, ooh that character is a badass now, end.
I think your opinion of this movie will depend on how you feel about Dacascos, Moss, and that thankfully-dormant genre of super-twisty crime thrillers. Like any two of the three and you should be okay, like all three and you’ll have a good time. Not essential, but decent fun and a reminder of a less simple time.
Rating: thumbs in the middle