This article features spoilers for The Losers. It originally ran on Den of Geek UK.
“Anyone else would be dead by now.”
In some ways, 2010 was the year of the team action movie. We were still a couple of years away from The Avengers, but there were a few films with big names teaming up to kick ass. At the height of the summer blockbuster season, a reboot of the 1980s men-on-a-mission series The A-Team, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper et al, arrived to mixed critical reviews and a hefty box office return.
Later in the summer, The Expendables also roared into cinemas with its explosive throwback silliness and a cast of ageing stars that would be expanded in the two sequels. Comic book adaptation RED was another budding franchise that year, and the unlikely team of Bruce Willis, John Malkovich, and Helen Mirren returned for a sequel in 2013.
Pre-empting any of that year’s box office giants was a decidedly smaller affair, The Losers, which landed in the middle of that three-way Venn diagram, as a comic book adaptation packed with over-the-top action and more than a passing similarity to the premise of The A-Team.
In DC Comics, The Losers were originally a squadron of World War II soldiers who appeared in the pages of Our Fighting Forces, starting in 1970. In 2003, creator Andy Diggle re-imagined the title under the company’s Vertigo imprint, poising the titular characters as a Special Forces team cut loose by the CIA, out for revenge on their handler.
Directed by Sylvain White (Stomp The Yard), the 2010 movie adapts from the first 12 issues of the comic and serves as an origin story for the group. Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Cougar (Óscar Jaenada), and Pooch (Columbus Short) are on a black ops search and destroy mission in Bolivia, sent to take down a drug lord in his own compound. The mission is complicated when they spot a number of slave children at the site, but their superiors order them to hold the course.
They disobey the order and save the kids by taking them to their extraction point, but the CIA destroys the helicopter with the 25 innocent bystanders aboard while trying to terminate their own rogue assets. Presumed dead, Clay and his men disappear and vow to take revenge upon their handler, (Jason Patric) with only the name Max to go on.
The film starts on a high, taking stylized cues from the comic artwork by 2000AD alum Mark “Jock” Simpson, but begins a steady decline into more generic action movie heroics from there on out. Aside from the Jock-inspired graphics, the film never quite matches the over-the-top opening act, with its school bus-smashing, helicopter-exploding carnage.
Aisha (Zoe Saldana) comes into the proceedings as an apparent contact who can get to Max, but she’s introduced with the kind of erotically charged fracas, forsaking motivation in exchange for an extended bit of rough-and-tumble, that only exists in this kind of movie and that unfortunately sets the tone for her femme fatale from there on out.
However, that’s more of a problem that exists on the page in Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt’s script and as is true many of the cast here, Saldana’s irresistible screen presence buoys the material considerably. For instance, Jeffrey Dean Morgan is a character actor well known to us geeks by now and this might have been a breakthrough leading role for him after great supporting roles in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen and the CW’s mainstay horror procedural Supernatural.
It’s also funny to look back now and see a movie whose first shot has the future Captain America playing shadow puppets across the star-spangled banner and making a toy Godzilla hump another toy dinosaur. Chris Evans is certainly the most prolific comic book movie actor in modern cinema (see also: Fantastic Four, Scott Pilgrim, Snowpiercer and a voice role in TMNT) and he makes a great showing here as the comic relief character who employs unlikely black-ops tactics like clearing a busy elevator by singing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Certainly, Jensen is the character who’s left carrying the funny and comic-booky stuff after the opening mission statement. Then again, Jason Patric is the unexpected wild card of the movie as Max. He does all of the most Bond villain-ish things imaginable, like arbitrarily disposing of henchmen and making absurdly evil demands, and he’s the best thing in any scene he’s in. There’s a scene that takes place at Bolivia’s Arecibo Observatory that typifies his mania, which is redoubled with a later punchline that involves the summary, meaningless execution of 18 men, including his long-suffering lieutenant’s brother-in-law.
But next to Evans, there’s Idris Elba, who would go on to further comic book roles as Heimdall in the Thor movies and Moreau in Ghost Rider – Spirit Of Vengeance, in a typically broody role as Roque. Had the filmmakers assembled this cast even a few years later, with increasingly darker DC Comics movies in the pipeline, they could have had a hit on their hands.
Suicide Squad is due in cinemas next summer, after the main event of Batman v Superman – Dawn Of Justice. Featuring more recognizable comic book characters, (The Joker and Harley Quinn) played by more bankable stars, (Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie et al) it’s almost like Warner Bros is doubling down on the prospect of a darker comic book team movie.
The Losers are most definitely anti-heroes, next to the more overtly nasty characters that will be assembled in Suicide Squad – their “save the cat” moment is carried out and subverted in the very first setpiece as they attempt to rescue the kids from the compound. But it remains to be seen whether the new movie, which is already built in to a planned franchise, will go where The Losers didn’t, and exceed the boundaries of a PG-13/12A rating.
David Ayer is known for violent, R-rated fare such as End Of Watch, Sabotage, and Fury, but we’ve yet to find out if he will toe the more marketable studio line and bring the DC movie in at PG-13, as White did with The Losers. There’s also a more irreverent comic book adaptation coming up next February, in the form of Deadpool, which is very explicitly going for the jugular, via an R rating. That film was green-lit following the unexpected success of Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman – The Secret Service, another hard R comic book movie.
Perhaps it’s more a sign of how things have changed in the last five years, but part of what lets The Losers down is its adherence to the PG-13 bracket, which manifests itself in stylized freeze frames on nameless henchmen as they are gunned down in the opening assault, and later reverts to more familiar bloodless action.
Then again, it’s more notably hamstrung by the rush to the end of the film, which short-changes any resolution or comeuppance for Max for the sake of setting up a sequel that will seemingly never come. To look back on it now, it had many of the right ingredients, but it didn’t quite come together as a commercial success. The names of most of its stars weren’t as big as Neeson, Willis or Stallone, but a couple of them were about to be. While doing the rounds on their biggest projects since, many of the cast have made positive noises about going back and doing a sequel when asked, but it doesn’t seem as if the appetite is really there on the studio end.
In its opening weekend in the US, the film opened at number four at the box office, behind How To Train Your Dragon, The Back-Up Plan, and Date Night. It was the first of the year’s team movies out of the gate, but that didn’t necessarily convert into a big opening. The film ultimately made $29.4 million in cinemas worldwide, around a third of the business it would need to do to be conventionally considered “in the black” for its $25 million budget.
Still, White’s film stands as an early attempt at building a feature film around DC anti-heroes that works out as a fun and almost fatally inoffensive actioner that didn’t quite live up to its cracking ensemble cast. It will be all the more fascinating to look back on how it all turned out after we see how more violent and irreverent anti-hero movies like Deadpool and Suicide Squad perform, as opposed to this lesser-remembered comic book ensemble movie.