Wedged as it is next to both Kick-Ass and Iron Man 2, it seems that The Losers is destined to be this year’s comic book also-ran, lacking in familiarity, controversy and attractive, bankable stars. That’s a shame, because when this adaptation (from the Andy Diggle/Jock book) hits its stride, the film is a pithy, adrenaline-fuelled saviour for the action genre.
We meet The Losers, a gang of specialised army badasses, in the Bolivian rainforest. They play cards, and use absurdly huge sidearms instead of chips, raising the stakes with increasingly imposing penis metaphors, and exposing their glistening biceps with Predator-reminiscent macho glee. And there probably hasn’t been such a rippling parade of broadly caricatured brawn in the 20-odd years since.
There’s Roque (Idris Elba), who twirls knives and speaks with a constant grun, Mexican sharp-shooter Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), pilot and family man Pooch (Columbus Short), wise-cracking hacker Jensen (Chris Evans), and Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), the grizzly officer in command. These guys are more than capable of taking down whole armies, if the need arises. One problem: they’ve been set up. Their routine operation is actually a cold-hearted stab in the back, and they’re left with their reputation in tatters, and declared dead by their former superiors.
So starts a fairly ho-hum revenge thriller narrative, with a great deal of explosive action and very little depth, resonance or character development. However, the real trick of The Losers is that, for the most part, you don’t particularly care.
Starting off with immense style and flourish, such as big comic book splashes introducing the characters, large letters being painted on the landscape announcing key locations, edits with flashbulb-pop punctuation, gun shots that shake your seat on impact, camera angles that suggest Gears Of War, and the careening power chords of Black Betty, you are dragged on by its forward motion, its sense of momentum that refuses to let go.
The Losers finds its sweet spot in the mixture of Oceans Eleven-style slick teamwork, gentle humour and openly, charmingly silly mayhem. Its most valuable asset in this regard is Chris Evans, who is pitch perfect as the squad’s nerdy motormouth, jabbering through neurotic asides and comments that help to undercut the narrative’s moments of grindingly dull exposition, deflating contrived tension with incongruous t-shirts and, in a standout scene, infiltrating a skyscraper office block to a rousing rendition of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.
Unfortunately, he’s the only character who sticks. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, looking cool in an ever-present suit, manages to carry a suave sort of emotional trauma behind his dark eyes, but there never really is any complexity that lets the characters become compelling beyond posture and punch.
The opening sequence, where they are framed, uses innocent civilian casualties as lazy shorthand to instill a sense of moral certainty to their revenge mission, but this removes any thorny subtext to the team’s destructive journey.
While they gel as a team, with the film’s action setpieces showcasing each character’s part in a well-executed whole, Short, Jaenada and Elba (in what should be his breakout performance) just don’t have that much space to develop their parts beyond testosterone-fuelled stereotyping.
Likewise, Zoe Saldana tries her best with the under-written, mysterious benefactor Aisha, a character who, being a woman, is viewed with suspicion and desire. It is yet another unremarkable, saliva-baiting supporting role that she can add to the pile.
These are stray threads that, if pulled, unravel the whole picture. It is a film that rests on the suspension of all intelligence, a sacrifice that must be made in order to accept the badly managed twists and betrayals, the scene-chewing bad guy Max (a deliciously non sequitur-spewing Jason Patric) and the cheap, sequel-anticipating conclusion.
And while it opens with a bang, and director Sylvain White keeps the pulse racing, it seems to run out of visual ideas far before the finish line, often falling into unimaginative toolkit of POV handheld shots, slow-mo, and self-consciously ‘comic book-like’ freeze frames that may mimic the stylised, iconic flair of Jock’s original artwork, but starts to look a little drab on screen.
Intensely flawed, but enjoyable, unpretentious and with enough kick to clear many of its glaring pitfalls, The Losers will suitably massage your (supposedly masculine) id for 90-odd minutes. Unfortunately, it is badly timed, as its intended audience of fun-loving geeks are probably more excited for The A-Team or The Expendables, films that more distinctly echo simpler, stupider times.
The Losers is due in the UK from May 28th.