Friday, April 30, 2010

The Losers

"Say That Again, But a Lot Slower and Dumber"
"Know What the Worst Part of Being a Good Guy is?"

A rag-tag team of combat specialists are assigned to take out a drug-king-pin in Bolivia. They are Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short), and Cougar (Óscar Jaenada); they mark the target for a devastating air-strike, then sit back and wait. Set and forget.

They continue monitoring and notice that a van carrying children—destined to be drug-"mules"—has pulled up at the compound. That changes everything. You can't kill kids.
Ignoring orders, Clay makes the decision to go in, take out the kids and get out before the strike in 8 minutes. There'll be collateral damage...and Hell to pay, but they have to do it. There's no damn choice.

"The Losers" was initially a part of the DC Comics line of combat comics set in World War II, then morphed into their odd hybrid line of soldiers versus dinosaurs stories,* and were conceived and illustrated by some of the great comics-scribblers of the 60's including Robert Kanigher, Joe Kubert and even Jack Kirby. The concept of a squad of last men standing was too good to go fallow, and the series was updated as a "soldier of fortune" series in 2004 by Andy Diggle and artist Jock (who does a lot of design work for this movie). It retained the spirit of the originals, keeping the concept of fighters who are supposed to be dead, but don't know enough to lay down an die...not without taking a few bad guys out with them, anyway.**

But, as adapted by
Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights") and James Vanderbilt ("Zodiac"), these guys have more in common with "The Magnificent 7" crossed with the Impossible Missions Force; nobody's a GP, they're all specialists—a well-integrated team that complete each other and have each other's back dodging bullets, whether from drug cartels, or their own former bosses in the C.I.A. They're all considered dead from that disastrous Bolivia job, so they double back and decide to kill the masters who set them up for a suicide mission without the decency of telling them. Being dead, they have nothing to lose.

With the help of
the beautiful but deadly Aisha (again with the Zoe Saldana), they smuggle themselves back into the country and plan their revenge against the mysterious Max (Jason Patric), whose idea of Homeland Security is a little passive-aggressive.

This is action-piffle, tarted up with
Tarantino graphics,*** fights choreographed like dance-moves—director Sylvain White's last film was "Stomp the Yard"— and ramp-edited down to "300"-style freeze-frame-kills. There's even a Michael Bay-parodying slo-mo-perp-walk before a billowing American flag brings down the curtain on it (at least, I HOPE it was a parody!) The good-guys hit their targets at a dead-run, and the bad-guys wear the latest in bullet-magnet suits. There's a bit of sci-fi hokum with "green" weapons of mass disappearance—snukes—sonic de-materializers, that cork-screw a target into oblivion with no clean-up and no background radiation. Neat. Set and forget. The locations zip by, things blow up REAL good, and the good-guys fist-pump with an "Outstanding!"

Standard. Operating. Procedure.

And yet. And yet...

The Losers" zips along like a freight-train, produces several hi-falutin' set-your-watches set-pieces efficiently and entertainingly, and carries it out with a heavy existentialist air of time-running-out/nothing-to-lose. These guys do what they do because they can't do anything else, but are careful enough to choose non-lethal methods when necessary. They don't kill on a whim and won't die on one, either. They get shot, bicker and fight (and for once, act on their threats), do it under the radar, if possible, but do it anyway if not, and always think about the exit strategy, frequently to the sound of sirens. It's a caper movie with bigger explosions and modest means.

It's what the "
Mission: Impossible" films should be if they weren't fronted by a Big Dog with a Bond-fetish.

And for such a "star-less" movie, it still manages to be nicely played by every member of the cast.****
Morgan, who's the missing link between George Clooney and Brad Garrett, has the leading-man confidence needed to pull it off, and Chris Evans proves again that he can be a reliable actor of off-kilter inventiveness. Idris Elba plays his tough-guy with a nice dead-pan humor without minimizing the tough-act. And Jason Patric's arch-villain Max is weirdly out-of-sync with the rest of the movie, like a petulant Joker, but without the theatrics.

In another time, "The Losers" would be revered as a solid B-movie, as good as that strata could achieve given the limitations of budget and cast. But today, when anything except straight-to-video is considered an "A-list" release, it gives off the appearance of being second-tier—appropriate given the reputation of its title characters. But don't be fooled. There's a lot of interesting, solid work being done in this movie, while keeping it anarchic and entertaining. I found it amusing and respectable.

"The Losers" is a really, really cheap Matinee.

* Note to Hollywood: Could you do worse than this for a movie-concept?

** But, then, there are a lot of "anonymous" soldier-of-fortune groups in comics: "The Challengers of the Unknown," "The Sea-Devils," "The Doom Patrol," and the most successful, "The X-Men." Did I mention that "Pooch" was the dog-mascot of "The Losers?"

*** ...which Tarantino appropriated from his own love of four-color adventures, so it's a bit of a Mother-Child reunion, as it is whenever a comics adaptation does it.

**** Well, let me amend that: Holt McCallany, who plays First Henchman, Wade, just sorta stands there with a tight jaw and does nothing much. Can't blame him, really. His priority is to keep a straight face during Jason Patric's camp, but comically precise performance as Chief Villain (sans white cat).


Mike Lippert said...

Amusing and respectable is exactly what it is and I hope more people go to see it because this is exactly the kind of action movie Hollywood should be going back to making instead of the current hard on for making everything big and 3D. I'd take this any day.

The Mad Hatter said...

(Yup, me commenting again - trying to catch up on my blog readin')

Strangest thing - I thought this movie was immensely stupid: especially the physics-be-damned stunt that precedes the grade of "Outstanding!"...b-u-u-u-u-t-t-t-t-t...I actually had some brainless fun watchin' it.

You're right, it's not nearly worth a full pop admission, but what does it say that such crap entertained me?

Maybe it all comes back to the use of Journey.

Yojimbo_5 said...

You're always welcome, Tetch, and I am gratified that you find it worth the time to visit.

What does it say? That it entertained you and didn't just do a version of "variations on a theme" that so many "mayhem" movies are satisfied to accomplish. I found the characters well-drawn (except for the sniper, who remains—deliberately—an enigmatic figure) and well-played. It may not deserve the sequel that the character interactions demand (despite everyone being so chummy at the end), but it is a good example of the "motley crew" of professionals meshing to accomplish a task left undone.

"Don't Stop Beleivin'" my friend.