The movie adaptation of Vertigo's balls-to-the-wall espionage comic, The Losers, completely nails the spirit of the book. Though its villain leaves a whole lot to be desired.
There's a genre that can best be described as Band of Dudes Skilled in Varied Bad-Assery. It was probably born with The Odyssey, though their varied bad-assery was never particularly specific: Odysseus was really crafty, and everyone else followed him. But in the annals of stories for manly folk, this particular strain has endured — encompassing classic tales like Robin Hood and King Arthur, more modern fables like The Seven Samurai (and it's descendant, The Magnificent Seven), The Five Deadly Venoms, Force 10 From Navarone, and Predator. And now Hollywood has given us the latest iteration, The Losers.
Like every Dudes of Varied Bad-Assery movie, the lure for the audience is simple: You wish you had friends like these. You wish the fellas (or ladies) you rolled with would have your back if you needed to talk to that girl (or gent), assault a hardened location, or topple a terrorist plot. You wish that you were cool enough to inspire such loyalty.
And if they're nothing else, the Losers are loyal. As the film opens, in the jungles of Bolivia, they're a tight team of Army soldiers led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan's grizzled Clay. They talk with practiced verve and bounce, the kind of familiarity that comes only when you've been in movie combat together. There's Jensen (Chris Evans), the computer wonk; Roque (Idris Elba), the second-in-command; Pooch (Columbus Short), the wheelman; and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), the taciturn sniper. Their Bolivian mission is to take down a drug kingpin who's been doing very bad drug-kingpinny things, like using children as mules and keeping bikini chicks around a pool. Nothing goes to plan — as things so rarely do — and the Losers find themselves hustling a schoolbus of kids down a mountain to avoid an airstrike ordered by a shadowy government spook known only as Max (Jason Patric). How do we know that Max is the villain of our piece? Because he's okay with killing that schoolbus of kids, just as he's okay with killing the Losers simply to clean up a messy operation.
Left for dead south of the border by a government that wanted them that way, the Losers desperately try to work their way back into their old lives (and the U.S.) by chasing any information about Max — which leads them to Aisha (Zoe Saldana), a smoky fatale with a fat wad of money, contacts in immigration, and a location for the big bad wolf. And so begins a daisy-chain of heists, double-crosses, tequila benders, and explosions — all rendered by director Sylvain White with a palette of mayhem that feels drawn directly from the Vertigo comics written by Andy Diggle and drawn by Jock. As do many of the film's set pieces: the military helicopter heist, the armored car pickup, Jensen's finger-banging the security guards; all are pulled mostly intact from the legitimately funny pages.
And when it's those guys, cracking wise and blowing shit up, The Losers is a gas. This film is a blunt instrument — not overflowing with either finesse or subtlety — but a blunt instrument will still get the job done. While I remain unconvinced of Morgan's ability to carry a film, or do more than scowl and look good in a sweaty suit, Saldana hits both hot and hostile in equal measures and Evans completely nails Jensen's quickfire awkwardness. (Evans' Losers role isn't quite the audition piece for Captain America some might choose to see it as, but one thing's clear: he's definitely got the guns for it.)
The Losers delivers almost everything it promises and, honestly, what more can you ask? Oh, yeah: a villainous match for our heroes. The Losers biggest problem — really, it's only problem — is Max. The villain with the tangential relationship to sanity has been done, and done better, than Jason Patric aims for here. Max's cartoonishly over the top plan is to use CIA slush-fund money to purchase a super-destructive scifi weapon called a "snuke" — a name which would've sounded much cooler if South Park hadn't used it to describe a nuclear weapon in a certain Secretary of State's vagina — and then destroy a chunk of Los Angeles with it. Why? So that he could start blaming other terrorists for it. Of course. Which would've been awesome if John Travolta hadn't gotten there nine years ago in Swordfish. As Patric swans around with his Bond villain suits and predilection for wanton violence, he's the only thing that screams "comic book" in the whole film — and that's including the many uses of Jock's high-contrast artwork.
The Losers is a throwback to a time when movies could be about men causing lots of collateral damage in an attempt to take it to the Man. If only the Man was worth their considerably awesome efforts.