'Losers' Makes for Winning Action
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"The Losers," directed by Sylvain White and adapted from a series of adult-only espionage-action comics, is a big, brassy, bright action flick with a sense of humor, and while it's hardly anything new, it is definitely something good. The critic Umberto Eco once wrote, "Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us. For we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion." "The Losers" doesn't contain a hundred clichés, it has thousands of them. Those clichés aren't having a reunion so much as they are doing shots in the kitchen and making out on top of the coats in the bedroom and mock-wrestling in the backyard. This is a movie in which an opening card game is shot with the whips and zooms of an action scene, a sex scene is shot with the slow-mo style of a martial arts melee, and the action scenes and martial arts melees are shot like the pinnacle of human achievement.
"The Losers" pushes the bonds of plausibility like a Chippendale's dancer straining the confines of his trunks, but never bursts through them. It has cool supersoldier heroes and still pauses to mock their tough-guy nicknames. It has a break-in that goes from stealthy smoothness to desperate disaster and back to too-cool triumph while Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" roars on the soundtrack. It is a substantial amount of insubstantial fun.
Adapting Andy Diggle's comics, Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt work the same kind of magic they did when Berg directed Vanderbilt's script in the underappreciated and oversmart "The Rundown." A group of Special Forces operatives -- Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short) and Cougar (Óscar Jaenada) -- are betrayed and set up to be killed by a mysterious intelligence operative they've only heard on the radio, Max. Believed to be dead, they set out to steal their lives back and get a little payback on Max. As Clay notes, "A man with a voice is a man with a throat." Femme fatale Aisha (Zoe Saldana) finds Clay's group and rounds them out to a dirty half-dozen, offering them info on where Max is in exchange for putting him in the ground.
Max is played by Jason Patric as a suit-wearing sociopath in a constant slow-burn, sarcastic, homicidal hissy fit. Max has minion problems, hates negotiating with underlings, and has an exasperating to-do list of homicide and warmongering. Patric's understated charm (Dr. Evil played straight and shoved into your gut like a shiv) gives "The Losers" a lot of its giddy, gritty kick. It's funny that Max kills people because he's peeved with them; it's scary, too. And while "The Losers" has fun (throwaway lines, sight gags, moments of absurdity in the middle of the firefights), it never makes a gag at the expense of the action. Many action films try to work as fun and frenzy, balancing gunpowder and giddy power, banter and bullets both flying, and fail. But the movie manages it in the same way a bumblebee flies, in defiance of all laws of science and logic but nonetheless buzzing by fast and bright and zippy.
The cast all shrug on their archetypes with the same calm and class the Village People brought to suiting up in their instantly-identifiable roles: Clay's the reluctant leader; Roque the tough right-hand man; Jensen the sassy techspert; Pooch the laid-back wheelman; Cougar the laconic long-lens killer. Aisha puts some friction and sway into the group while still diving into the testosterone pool's deep end. And we've seen these characters before, from the motor-mouthed maniac to the strong and silent sniper, but, again, if you don't like these clichés even a little, you are: a) not going to like "The Losers"; and, b) probably no fun at parties.
Director White has a good grasp of action-film mechanics, and not only nails the compulsory elements, but also shows off a little when he gets to freestyle. "The Losers" is equally indebted to John Woo's bullet ballet and Sergio Leone's sense of the epic. (White, like Leone, enjoys shooting action scenes from a distance of either two inches or two miles, with nothing in between.) But he also knows when to ease up on the throttle, when to put in a character bit or a comedy line, how to give us breaks before hurling us back into the fray. "The Losers" is exactly what you would hope for from an action film: a wham-bam-glitz-and-glam good time with two-fisted action and brains to boot, succeeding in its aspiration to do nothing more, and nothing less, than to entertain every minute it's on-screen. Sure, it's a party of a thousand clichés. And, like any awesome party, you may not remember it perfectly the next day or be especially proud of how much fun you had. But when it's happening, it's a hell of a good time.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.