Another month and another comic book adaptation. We’ve recently had the less than stellar Jonah Hex and the slightly better Iron Man 2 recently, but where a story as distinctly un-Super Hero as The Losers fits into this continual marketing hype of all things graphic novel related remains to be seen. Directed by Sylvain White, whose main credit to date is the straight to video third in the I Know What You Did Last Summer series, the underwhelming and Love-Hewitt less I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer. Put alongside his last feature, the generic jump at the band wagon of dance-athon cinema Stomp The Yard and the prospects for this much loved comic series making it to the screen don’t look quite so rosy.
At least the material is ripe for adaptation, the DC Vertigo comics written by Andy Diggle ran for 32 issues, short enough to indicate the characters’ mortality, but long enough to provide a decent story arc. The narrative is distinctly A-Team in flavour, a fact that didn’t help the film in its theatrical run given the closeness of its release to the adaptation of Hannibal and Co’s exploits. A group of elite soldiers (in this case Black Ops) get sent on a mission, double crossed and proceed on a path to clear their names and get revenge. Sound familiar? Diggle’s writing was far more satirically cutting and relevant to today’s politics, and as such the comic was rightly hailed as a mixture of Boys Own adventure buddy antics, heist tale and knowing sideswipe at certain supposedly peacekeeping agencies that work within the intelligence industry.
With Peter Berg (Very Bad Things) and James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) on board for scripting duties things may look better for the home format market to reappraise the movie now that it’s out from under the shadow of a nostalgic eighties revivalist goliath. The presence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the leader of the group, Clay, will certainly continue the burgeoning optimism of anyone hoping this was an underrated gem, though anyone who’s seen the aforementioned Jonah Hex (with which this film also shares a producer in Akiva Goldsman) will know that his inclusion is not necessarily a stamp of quality for the film as a whole. Still, his role as Edward Blake AKA The Comedian in the adaptation of Alan Moore’s Watchmen has gone a long way to convincing comics fans that he has what it takes to bring an iconic role to the screen with charisma and gravitas.
At a brief 97 minutes the film takes no time whatsoever to get going, it becomes clear early on that little in the way of exegesis will be added to the bones of the graphic novels, in fact in many instances material is stripped away, mainly in the form of extra characters. The early scenes introduce us to the main cast in a simple and effective manner. White sticks with the flashy comics aesthetic, but if anything loses the nourish nature of the original’s artists, Jock in particular. With this being a different medium there were always going to be some changes though and this can easily be forgiven as the line work and all that it indicates would be hard to replicate on celluloid. The set-up is simple and once you hit the ten minute mark you’ve learnt all about the five members of the team; that Clay is the leader, Jensen (Chris Evans) is the geeky tech guy, Cougar is an ace sniper, Roque (Idris Elba) favours knives as well as being in charge of demolitions and Pooch is the designated driver. Comic book artwork has been intercut in these moments, likely in the hope of making the transition from the page to the screen palatable for fans, but it sets the tone as being flashy and simplistic, two merits that are continued throughout the piece and which arguably distance it somewhat from Diggle’s writing.
If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire...The Losers?
If you’ve managed to put your A-Team notions of what the film might present you with to the back of your mind for these introductions then they’ll soon be at the forefront of your thoughts once more as the action kicks in. For a Black Ops team, such high minded notions such as combat tactics are swept away as Clay’s band drive a vehicle straight through a drug lord’s compound doors at speed and proceed to shoot everything that moves, only pausing for brief witticisms such as Clay picking off two men beside a pair of bikini clad women only to smile “ladies”. The buddy action theme of shooting and quipping is continued to excess though, with Evans’ portrayal of Jensen proving less an affably likeable motor mouth (as in the comics) and more an infinitely punchable figure with all the wit and charm of a lobotomised drive time DJ. Some exaggerations work on the printed page of graphic novels but merely highlight the difference in mediums when transported to the screen.
In the space of a couple of minutes the catalyst for the plot is laid down in simplistic fashion – the men have been double crossed, a helicopter full of kids has been blown up and now “The Losers” are assumed dead and mad as hell at the shadowy figure, Max, who set them up. Stranded in South America after their failed mission, this leads to various clichés of in-fighting amongst the group and Clay being depicted as a troubled leader desperate to hold his men together while they figure out a way to get even. Cue the entrance of two characters that are at polar opposite; Aisha and Max. Aisha (Zoe Saldana) is clearly intended to add a bit of fire and sexuality to proceedings, but quickly turns into a rather limp rag along for the ride whose main purpose is to steer the narrative at various points. She offers the men a way back into America and a chance to settle the score. At the other end of the scale is Max – the disembodied voice finally takes corporeal form in the guise of Jason Patric. A great character in the comics, he is perhaps the only creation of Diggle’s to survive to the screen intact, if not in totality of actions and lines, certainly in overall style. Patric not only steals each scene he is in but also leaves you wanting to catch up with the Machiavellian villain whenever we are moved to watched our protagonists. A strangely appropriate mix of Benjamin Kane from Wayne’s World and Donald Rumsfeld, the besuited Max is a satirical evil genius for the twenty first century – a man plotting the start of global conflict and chaos for the good of the world, plus a healthy profit of course.
When Patric isn’t lighting up the screen with his smarmy visage we at least get to see some action. Guns, helicopters, explosions and good old fashioned fisticuffs are all utilised to keep the momentum firing along at a breakneck pace. There are the few instances of depth and a twist or two on the road but carnage is the appeal here. The problem is once again the A-Team comparisons are brought back to the fore as soon as we get anywhere near a set-piece. Whether it be a sub Face moment such as Jensen trying to chat up an attractive lady during an operation or the Scrapheap Challenge-lite approach to a mission, all are below the level of the aforementioned film, and the fact that this was made on budget well dwarfed by that of its rival only heightens the abyss between them. A couple of genuine explosions don’t mask the computer generated nature of many stunts, and they are not particularly convincing.
The Losers had the great misfortune to come along at a time when what must have been a notable influence on the original comic book was brought back to greater public attention. It’s light on brain-food and heavy on asinine character interplay, but Patric’s performance and the presence of Morgan rescue it somewhat. White’s direction doesn’t help, favouring flashiness that would fit in a comic panel rather than cinematic atmosphere. When faced with such an uphill battle, unfortunately The Losers, well, lose.
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