It never ceases to amaze me the way Hollywood movies appear in clusters. I mean, they are like buses - you wait ages for an old school action flick and then three turn up at once. Spooky isn‘t it - it’s almost as though the studios are packed full of uninspired dullards who are desperately leaping on any bandwagon and stealing ideas of each other left, right and centre!
Seriously though, this year’s blockbuster season seems to jam-packed with maverick tough guys on dangerous missions - we have the A Team bringing their plans together again, and the Expendables which seems to be the hard man equivalent of a Universal monster rally, raining testosterone on theatres over the next few months.
But before either of these pair flex their pecs, we have The Losers. Being neither an incarnation of a beloved ‘80s show, nor sporting an all shootin’. all fightin’ roster of tough tits icons, The Losers is very much the underdog. Yes, it is based on a well regarded comic book, by Andy Diggle and Jock, but like Kick-Ass it’s a title that is pretty much unknown outside the comics reading world. So there’s every chance, this movie’s title is going to be a prediction of its box office fate. And naturally if you call your film The Losers you are just begging assorted wags and smart arses to make the crack; “hey dude, the review is, like, the title.”
Now right off the bat, let me say I had a ton of fun with The Losers and while I can see it finishing in third place in the box office stakes, I will predict that it's going to win a handsome cult following and quite possible will be remembered long after The A Team and the Expendables are forgotten. Stallone and Neeson may be the big guns, and are sure to soak up an arsehole amount of ticket sales, but equally, there’s every chance that both movies will be typically blockbuster fare i.e. flawed and instantly forgettable.
The plot is the usual action flick nonsense. Jeffery Dean Morgan is Colonel Clay, leader of a specialist unit of kick-ass merchants. We have the brooding Roque (Idris Elba or Stringer Bell to Wire heads), the typically silent but utterly deadly expert sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), vehicle expert Pooch (Columbus Short), and finally Jensen (Chris Evans), the wise cracking tech guy. After a raid on a drug baron goes tragically wrong, the guys are believed dead and blamed for the carnage. Cue Zoe Saldana, a mysterious lady who offers to bankroll the guys' revenge on the man who framed them, rogue CIA boss Max (Jason Patric).
Now the ins and outs of the story need not detain us too much here. It makes as much sense as it needs to and moves along at a breakneck pace. There’s all the expected twists and turns, threaded around plenty of action and liberally laced with quips. The Losers is well aware of the ridiculousness of its storyline and revels in it. It plays up the comedy just enough to stay the right side of self parody and at the same time treats the action seriously enough to make the set pieces thrilling.
And there are some excellent set pieces on display here too; they may tend towards the absurd and are utterly unbelievable, but they are massive amounts of fun. I won’t spoil any of them but they are the kind of capers that have you simultaneously gasping and chuckling.
Any time it looks like the pace is going to flag, or the audience is in danger of having time to reflect on the implausibility of the plot or the many macho clichés in the script, either something explodes or we get long lingering shots of Zoë Saldana. Yep, this is a guy’s film through and through, and the film makers know it.
Now the plot may be the usual action drivel, but it tries hard to make up for this by being energetic and inventive in the carnage it throws at the screen.However the magic ingredient that really makes The Losers work is the cast. They are well defined and likeable, each with their own distinct personalities and have excellent chemistry with each other. In short, they really sell you on the story as daft as it is.
All perform well, even Jaenada as the stereotypically taciturn sniper manages to imbue his character with considerable charisma. Colombus Short is very likeable as Pooch, the human heart of the team and Idris Elba makes for a great argumentative second in command, bouncing well off Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Clay.
Zoë Saldana fares the worst, as the movie doesn’t give her much room to show off her acting chops. Her character is somewhat underwritten as the script seems more concerned with portraying her shapely legs as the road to Heaven. However what she does get, she performs well handling the drama and the fight scenes with equal aplomb. And even though the camera spends a good deal of time ogling her, she manages to look iconic in a way that pout-merchants like Megan Fox never can.
However it’s Chris Evans who really steals the show. His Jensen is equally at home with comic timing as he is with the tough guy dynamics. His performance really shines out, despite some very stiff competition and the sheer charisma of his turn in The Losers bodes well for his forthcoming turn as Captain America.
But despite some creative set pieces and an accomplished cast, The Losers is not without its problems. Its sheer energy is enough to propel a causal viewer over the cracks but the flaws are still there. And undoubtedly for viewers, they may well be deal-breakers.
The first is a bit more of a niggle rather than an outright botch. And to be honest, depending on your taste, it could be a strength rather than a weakness. I’m talking about lead villain Max - and the thing here is that Jason Patric plays him in very broad comedy strokes. Don’t get me wrong, he’s highly amusing and it makes a change to see an arch villain doing about his business in a breezy have-fun manner rather than the more usual scowling I’m-dead-evil-me theatrics. However he is having such a ball delivering the quippage, his scenes felt a little out of place; they work but tonally I thought they just didn't quite match the rest of the movie.
But as I said depending on your taste, it could go either way. I’ve no doubt that Patric’s performance is going to run the full gamut of reactions; some will see him as a highlight, some will feel he sinks the movie single-handed, while others, like myself, will tend to think that director Sylvain White should have told him to dial the performance down a couple of notches.
However, I suspect it was old Sylv who was telling Patric to keep on ramping it up in the first place. Because the major flaws in The Losers clearly emanate from the director’s chair. Basically what lets the movie down is the editing and the choice of music. Clearly White is aiming to deliver the same high octane over-the-top thrills of the likes of the Crank films and Shoot ‘Em Up with the cool kinetics of Edgar Wright or Quentin Tarantino.
However in his haste to be the hippest, most dynamic, young director in the block, he has made the mistake of throwing so much at the wall to see what sticks, at times you just can’t see the wall anymore. All too frequently, the quick edits and sundry other visual flourishes end up neutering rather than enhancing the action. Now in fairness, he’s a good enough director not to fall into the trap of editing the action sequences into total incomprehensible montages, but in his attempt to be cool, his visual stylistics get in the way of the actual thrills, and you end up feeling he’s ended up inadvertently pulling the punches of some scenes with his hipper-than-thou posturing.
Similarly the soundtrack doesn’t help either. Again, you can tell he’s going for the same eclectic assemblage of kick-ass tunes that Wright and Tarantino excel at creating for their movies. However he clearly doesn’t have the record collection of the afore mention pair, and although his choice of tunes is serviceable you can’t help thinking there were cooler tracks to pick.
However the quality of tunes aside, the real problem with the music is that like the cinematography, it’s all far too choppy. His use of music reminded me of the worst kind of noisy neighbours. Yes, that is a somewhat oblique analogy, but for those of you unfamiliar with the pleasures of living in less than salubrious neighbourhoods, let me explain…
Now the most common form of neighbour noise annoyance is the loud music pumping out at unsociable hours. And your better class of irritants next door will normally manage to decide to start cranking up the volume to ear splitting levels at 2 AM on the day when you absolutely, positively have to have an early start. However, the true grandmasters of the aural pollution have an extra added trick up their sleeves - they don’t just play their tunes too loud, they can’t exactly decide what they want to listen to. So you get snatches of hundreds of tracks without a single one ever making it all the way to the end, and most of them being started somewhere in the middle. It's like living next door to the annual Attention Deficit Disorder and Hyperactivity Social Mixer.
And it’s exactly this kind of irritating jump-cut musical jarring that the soundtrack to The Losers frequently lapses into. Some of his choices may well be top flight tunes, but we only hear twenty seconds, before he’s snatched it off the turntable and dumped us into the middle ten seconds something entirely different.
Both visually and musically, White is trying so hard to impress, to be cool, he ends up looking dorky. He’s simply trying too hard, and trying to look hip is a sure-fire way of missing the mark. In fact, he is so keen to be appear to be so cool he can’t see over his pelvis, I’m beging to suspect Sylvain White isn’t his real name at all and that his actually moniker is something like Fred Boggins.
However the upside of Sylv’s do-everything-all-at-once approach is that a decent amount actually does work. Hence as I said earlier, the movie has enough energy to skate over the rough patches. But as it stands, I can’t help feeling that had they dialled down the frenetics a little, or taken a less scattergun approach to the stylistics we would have had a far better movie.
At the end of the day, there is far more to enjoy here than to hate; and The Losers does hit the mark it is quite spectacular. And as the film has no aspirations other than to deliver big dumb action fun, it can get away with being a little too hyper. What’s really annoying though is that the problems with the editing and the soundtrack are both easily fixable - an experienced editor and a good musical director could easily raise the movie‘s quality very quickly. As it stands, we have a perfectly entertaining flick, but one destined more the cult and guilty pleasure categories. And with such a polish it could have been a great action picture rather than merely good fun.
JIM MOON, 4th May 2010