There's a ton of memorable scenes in Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), but one of the best sees Miami drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) making his drunken, drugged exit from a fancy restaurant. "Say goodnight to the bad guy", he slurs at the shocked diners, "it's the last time you gonna see a bad guy like me, let me tell you." De Palma's lurid film of '80s excess is smarter than it is often given credit for, and this scene is one reason. It's about how we're simultaneously fascinated and repelled by "bad guys", both in real life and in the movies.
David Ayer is another director who is as fascinated by bad guys as De Palma - he has a special interest in bad guys that ostensibly should be good. Corrupt cops have featured in several of the films he has written and directed, including Training Day (2001), Dark Blue (2003) and Street Kings (2008). Of these films, Training Day is the most reputable - it earned star Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and made Ayer's name. At the other end of the spectrum, there's Sabotage (2014).
Ayer's latest saga of police corruption was a major flop, making less than $19 million against its modest $35 million budget. The reasons for this failure were many. The confused marketing alternately claimed the film as a straightforward action picture and as a loose adaptation of Agatha Christie's novel And Then There Were None. The star power of lead Arnold Schwarzenegger was clearly on the decline, and the critical response was very poor, focusing on the grisly violence and the holes in the script that Ayer co-wrote with the woeful Skip Woods.
While there's no dubt that Sabotage is no masterpiece, and not a patch on a movie like Training Day, it has a lot to offer those of us who relish films that focus on the bad guys. Like Scarface and The Way of the Gun (2000) before it, Ayer's film is about reprehensible, probably irredeemable figures. Schwarzenegger plays John "Breacher" Wharton, the leader of a tight-knit DEA assault team based in Atlanta. These trigger-happy gunmen revel in killing, and in the opening scene steal $10 million from a group of cocaine traffickers they have massacred. It's clear right away that these are not your regular boy scouts.
There's something very refreshing about the craven, corrupt approach of the DEA team in Sabotage. Many of today's action movies and thrillers are anaemic, compromised in the pursuit of the PG-13 rating that is perceived to be essential for financial success. Freed from these creative constraints - presumably by the fairly small financial outlay of the production - Ayer indulged himself. His characters are cruel, dishonourable and greedy. Their world is visually and morally ugly, Atlanta a city where drug lords nail disembowelled informants to their ceilings of their houses and where cops' families are tortured to death.
This kind of ethos isn't limited to Ayer - Taylor Sheridan and director Denis Villeneuve explored some of the same ground with the excellent Sicario (2015). What makes Sabotage so perversely appealing is how disreputable and crude it is, with the flat look of inexpensive TV and no pretensions at all towards realism or high-minded ideals. Ayer loves a vicious gang in uniform, is transfixed by their boneheaded horseplay and how they furiously kick down doors and clear a room. His unapologetic celebration of how exciting all this is makes up for the deficiencies in the budget and the script. For those of us with the taste, it's intoxicating.
While Hollywood's slow strides in representation are both welcome and overdue, the abundance of stories about unfailingly righteous protagonists and Oscar-bait issue dramas can become overwhelming. In his words, J.G. Ballard wrote Crash as a means to "rub the human face in its own vomit"; with movies like Scarface and Sabotage, directors like De Palma and Ayer have continued this worthwhile tradition, and from time to time it's just what we need.