“The Losers,” which opens Friday, is a poppy and fun action picture. The movie is almost a throwback to the action films of the 80s in which characters could crack a joke and then shoot something; usually a combination of potted plants and miscellaneous guards.
Based on the Vertigo series by Andy Diggle and Jock, the Warner Bros. film follows the events in the collected volume “Ante Up” with elements from later in the series sprinkled throughout. The team – Clay, Roque, Pooch, Cougar, and Jensen – are a military crew set up for a fall by a shadowy CIA ghoul known only as Max. Left for dead, the group must find their way back into the States in order to exact their bloody revenge. Along the way, Clay finds assistance in an equally shadowy woman named Aisha who has her motives for getting at Max.
Max, while shadowy and mostly a cipher in the series, comes to staggering life in the form Jason Patric. Dressed in white and channeling some coke-fueled bad-guy from an episode of “Miami Vice,” he is easily the biggest surprise and greatest addition to the whole concept. While the book’s vision of Max is great for a long series, it makes for a poor antagonist in a two-hour action film. Patric infuses the character with more personality than is required, but that’s not a bad thing as it makes for a film villain you want to see. As Max, Patric is cold, ruthless and all the standard things a villain needs to be. Where he rises above the standard cliche is Patric’s character’s focus on odd details. He is fascinated by the more mundane aspects of those around him, which can lull the viewer into forgetting his cold-hearted killer side…then, he’ll turn around and shoot an aide because she dropped an umbrella which was shielding him from the sun.
The early parts of the film take place in South America and illustrate the team’s betrayal as a “laser ink” mission goes bad. In the course of attempting to save some children, the team chooses to be left behind only to see the helicopter carrying the kids explode. Presumed dead, the group takes on odd jobs in order to raise money to smuggle themselves back into the country. In the comic, this process takes a number of years, while the film chops the timeline down to months. After Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) and Roque (Idris Elba) have an argument about their choice of action, Clay meets Aisha (Zoe Saldana).
Aisha is probably the most altered of the characters as they made the transition from the page to the screen. While the series’ Aisha is haunted and brutal, the film’s Aisha smiles and is actually amused by the boyishness of the group she has chosen to work with. Gone is the girl who licks her victim’s blood off her knives. She even seems pleased when Jensen (Chris Evans) completely fails in his attempts to chat her up. Though the majority of her arc involves Clay, she spends time with each member of the group, and those interactions round out the characters and making Aisha a fully integrated part of the story – a rarity in these sorts of action films.
When the Losers return to the States, the film uses some of the best set pieces from the early parts of the comic. They hi-jack a helicopter, use it to steal an armored car in mid-air and Jensen infiltrates a building as a messenger. The order of events might be different, but the new arrangement has a great rhythm as each moment is used to set up a greater whole. Also of note: the film replaces Jensen’s singing of Nick Cave’s “The Ballad of Robert Moore and Betty Coltrane” with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” It is a natural substitution, as Journey has more culture currency than a Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds B-Side, but it also has a nice side effect of endearing Jensen to the audience. In the hands of Chris Evans, it becomes a defining moment for the character and the song ends up becoming the film’s anthem.
All points lead to the Port of Los Angeles where Max is ready to accept delivery of a doomsday device known as a “snuke,” which we see crush an island into nothing earlier in the film. This is by far the weakest element of the plot. In the series, cocaine and cash motivates everything, like they did in the great action flicks of the 80s. In the Twenty-First Century, however, it seems greed isn’t motivation enough for a film villain. There always needs to be some world-shattering stakes that lead to unconvincing doomsday devices like the “snuke.” Consider a film like “Commando,” where the villain’s ultimate goal is to resume his despotic presidency of a fictional Latin America country. Consider “Die Hard,” where the villain’s stated terrorist goal turns out to be a sham so they can steal bearer bonds. These are not esoteric concept unfamiliar to the movie-going public. In fact, movie-goers have enjoyed those stakes for a hundred years. Losing that simple yet effective plot device is an unfortunate choice for a film that evokes so much of the spirit of the 80s action films that inspired the series in the first place.
That said, the film largely ignores the “snuke” until it’s no longer possible to do so, and keeps revenge as the primary goal for both Clay and Aisha, even bringing them into conflict as we learn she has a beef with him that they postpone to deal with until Max is good and dead.
Director Sylvain White became enamored with Jock’s artwork on the comic, and the artist’s stamp can be seen throughout the film as location transitions evoke his cover designs and the characters themselves flash into Jock illustrations as they’re introduced. There are even a few moments that are straight panel-to-frame translations; the trailer-highlighted scene featuring Cougar’s defense of Jensen in the high rise being a notable example.
While not without its flaws, “The Losers” is what it needs to be – a snappy, funny action flick. It is not a grim, ultra-realistic, hard-hitting expose of CIA corruption, but who is really expecting – or wanting – that? The film recalls an earlier time in Hollywood, when a military unit could easily be called rogue and try to air their grievances with some bullets and a few grenades. On the whole, action films have become too serious and self-important. “The Losers,” instead, gives you an action movie in which a guy can wear a pink shirt that says “Go Petunias!” and then attack a junior-soccer league coach. That is the sort of fun we should have in action movies more often.