Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Losers

The inherent strength and weakness of The Losers, indeed of the marketing pitches that secured its production, lies in the relative anonymity of its source material. The minor impact of Andy Diggle's 32-issue loose, modern remake of an early-'70s comic about World War II soldiers gives director Sylvain White the freedom to play with the material and rework it to his own ends without worry of legions of die-hards whispering the word "continuity" around him like a horde of extra-pale ghosts. On the other hand, the comic's adaptation suggests, in a broader sense, that the comic book film has hit the wall just as it appeared to be cresting into its golden age. With Kick-Ass created out of a fear of directors mining the C- and D-lists of DC and Marvel, Vaughn and Miller seem to have prefigured exactly this movie, even if they failed to overcome it.

From start to finish, The Losers plays like a throwback to the heyday of '80s action cinema and television. With an A-Team-esque squad of super soldiers burned by the government they so loyally and ruthlessly served fighting a deliriously campy villainous mastermind, The Losers doesn't have an ounce of originality in its breezy 98 minutes. To its credit, the film isn't trying to be subversive, satiric, innovative or whatever other terms have been lazily tossed about recently. Yet The Losers does not particularly succeed, failing to completely leap over even the low bar it sets for itself.

Perhaps it's the severity of the context in which White places the OTT characters, action and comedy. Not content to hang just any failed mission on the heads of its five specialists -- leader Franklin Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), right-hand man Roque (Idris Elba), hacker Jensen (Chris Evans), sniper "Cougar" (Óscar Jaenada) and driver "Pooch" (Columbus Short) -- White opens the film with a planned anti-terrorist operation in Bolivia that ends with a double-cross and the deaths of 25 children. Now, where's them one-liners?

Don't get me wrong: a film doesn't need to be entirely without sincerity or sobering drama to work as a piece of escapist fun. But this action sets a precedent for the film's narrative and seriousness that it abruptly abandons. The thought of two dozen dead children -- yes, even imaginary ones -- weighs over the enjoyment we're meant to take from the violence of the rest of the picture. Furthermore, their deaths only wander back into the minds of the characters, far more furious that the mysterious CIA bigwig Max (Jason Patric) burned them than the fate of those kids, when the time comes for an inspirational speech; I waited in vain for Col. Clay to shout in despair and rage, "Won't somebody think of the children?!"

That awkwardly inserted, non-motivational gravitas hangs upon the film's neck like an albatross, further dragging down the sloppy editing. Clearly a graduate student at Michael Bay U, White, previously known for his dance picture Stomp the Yard, appears to adamantly refuse to let any shot last longer than three seconds unless people are merely talking, and even then he peppers dialogue with reverse shots to ensure no one gets too comfortable. The phrase "looks like a music video" has become so hackneyed -- and, with original, innovative and supremely talented directors like David Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michael Gondry honing their craft with such projects, downright fallacious -- that its usage signifies that the writer has nothing of much substance to say of the aesthetic, yet it genuinely applies to White's direction. Porting over editor David Checel -- who has worked on numerous music videos, from Outkast's "Hey Ya!" to A Perfect Circle's "Weak and Powerless" -- from Stomp the Yard, White's camera jerks and spasms about the place, not so much transitioning between scenes (or even shots) as merely cutting to the next place. White and Checel even tweak one shot to jump a bit along with the beat of an overlapped song, a touch that has no purpose, little style and exists only in that one shot.

Such visual clumsiness only enhances the shortcomings of the script. Characters are given trite motivation that is only ever spoken, never shown. The Losers receive help in their quest to return the United States and to exact revenge from Aisha (Zoe Saldana), whose mysterious background cannot sufficiently envelop the flatness of her character. A helpful question to ask oneself in films driven primarily through narrative devices is, "So what?" Harsh and dismissive as it may sound on paper, questioning whether a reveal or twist or any other development affects anything. 25 children are murdered by a nefarious and corrupt CIA chief? So what? Oh, that's Aisha's secret? So what? There's a traitor in the Losers' midst who is the person you'd least suspect and therefore suspect the most? So what? This film passes like water through a clenched fist; everything that might give it some connection to the audience dissipates in the incessant irrelevance of it all.

Happily, everyone knows that nothing is expected of them, and, unlike Clash of the Titans, The Losers does offer its game cast a few moments to shine. Poor Jeffrey Dean Morgan: he puts in such commendable work -- who can forget him being one of two good things about Watchmen? -- but you just can't help but look at him and wonder if he gets work when casters put out calls looking for a stockier version of Robert Downey Jr. or a more American-friendly Javier Bardem. Bless his heart, Morgan commits to the part so completely, though, that he nearly draws out emotion from the most underwritten role in the film, and that's saying something. Patric comes the closest to updating his character for the modern age, playing Max alternately as an outsized action villain and a self-aware commentary on such types. Max's flighty petulance, evidenced by his demand for a team of 18 armed guards, only to order them killed simply because he changed his mind before even using them for an assignment, adds a tongue-in-cheek flavor to the otherwise banal action setups that surround him. But it is Chris Evans, who managed to shine in much worse comic book fare (the Fantastic Four series), who walks away with the film as the sort of endlessly quipping second banana who's just important enough to warrant his placement among an elite team yet self-effacing and carefree enough to stand outside the more leaden moments of reflection that burden the others. Besides, for all the dullness of most of the action scenes, the suitably ridiculous climax -- complete with a deliciously impossible death that defies the explosive properties of a vehicle's gas tank, any sense of logic and a number of the laws of physics -- offers a much-needed blast of throwback inanity in a world where Bond has gone the way of Bourne. If the poorly shot, largely stake-less scenes of the previous 80-85 minutes failed to successfully divert attention away from The Losers' many flaws, the ending demonstrates that White and Checel have a bit of spark between them after all, and pulling it all together in time for the film to end at least places it above Kick-Ass, which only managed to splinter farther apart as it progressed.


  1. Picking you up on the Fantastic Four jibe there. I thought Silver Surfer was a FINE comic-book adaptation -- captured the characters and the tone of the FF really well. A shame about Jessica Alba, but otherwise top marks, I think...

  2. Speaking as someone who never took to the Fantastic Four anyway and thus went in only to see a film, I LOATHED both FF and the sequel. I thought they had no drive, no real pathos save for The Thing and frankly no thrills. If Silver Surfer captured the tone of the series, then I cannot say I'm too rueful for never spending much time with it.