I don't even know, you guys. The Losers, a flashy new wind-up toy/movie from the team behind... um... Stomp the Yard (you read that right) is, by just about any definition, a bad film--filled with pat situations, hackneyed dialogue, and irritatingly overcooked photography. There are plenty of reasons to hate it, but I can't quite work up the bile to. It's a cynical exercise in empty style and tentpole creation, yes, but the whole thing is so openly crass about its intentions, so willing to lay its cards on the table, that you just end up kind of going along with it, and by the time the credits rolled, I felt something akin to affection for the damn thing. I'm not proud of myself, but there it is.
It is based on a comic book series, if you can imagine such a thing. Y'know, one of these days, Hollywood is going to run out of comic books to adapt and '80s movies to remake and have to spend some time working up some original ideas (stop the presses), but that's a discussion for another day. Where were we? Ah yes, The Losers. So our titular losers are one of those crack secret military units where everyone has a catchy name, a specialty, and an easily labeled personality type. There's Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, from Watchmen), the group leader and military man; Roque (Idris Elba, whom the press notes depressingly credit for his work in Obsessed and not The Wire), the icy second-in-command; Jensen (Chris Evans, your future Captain America), the motor-mouthed hacker; Pooch (Columbus Short, your Stomp the Yard carryover), the laid-back driver/pilot; and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), the marksman/strong silent type.
The story begins with the crew on a mission that goes wrong; they're supposed to target a drug lord and blow his jungle lair sky-high, but they spot some kids being trucked in ("They're using kids as mules!") and that's where they draw the line. A mysterious super-spook named Max (Jason Patric) on the other end of the radio, however, refuses to abort the mission, so they charge in, save the kids, put them on a bus, barely escape the exploding mansion, and put the kids on their extraction helicopter, which is promptly shot right out of the air. (Yes, you can apparently ice a chopper full of kids in a PG-13, as long as its cartoon violence that leaves only helicopter parts all over the grass instead of, you know, little arms and legs and whatnot.) The crew realizes immediately that they were the intended target, so they go deep cover and plot their revenge against Max. They don't have much luck with that until they cross paths with Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who pitches a self-professed "suicide mission" that could get them to Max.
The opening scenes are not promising. Director Sylvain White, cinematographer Scott Kevan, and editor David Checel appear to be trying to Bay up the flick, loading it up with garish photography and obnoxious editing (every other cut seems to be accompanied by a white flash, a pop, or a thud). This empty flair pops up back up here and there; it gets to a point where you wish they'd quit showing off and play out the damned scenes (it's just two people walking down some stairs, for Chrissakes). But once they calm the hell down, they uncover some interesting things.
The main trouble with The Losers is that no one appears to have settled on anything resembling a consistent tone. There are scenes that appear to played with a knowing wink; one gets the feeling that the screenplay (credited to Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt, neither of them dumb guys) was going for something a little more sly and funny than what ended up on screen. It's not that White doesn't know how to play a comic beat--it's that he keeps indulging in tired genre clichés and playing them straight. There are arguments about the car they're driving, there is a scene of improvised surgery, there is the straight-faced use of the line "Payback's a bitch," and there is (I kid you not) the slo-mo badass hero crew walking shot, played without a hint of irony (unless that American flag waving is supposed to be an attempt to veer into the realm of self-parody). But you can't just trot out these same tired sequence without putting some kind of a new twist on them. White isn't a nimble enough director to negotiate the line between straight action and smart satire; they co-exist uneasily, and as an audience, we're never certain whether we're laughing with the picture or at it.
Some of the performances work, however. Patric seems to get how utterly preposterous the whole thing is, and plays his scenes as broadly comic as possible, as though he's sharing an inside joke with the audience. And Evans finally shows some personality and a sense of humor (contrary to his dull, preening work in those terrible Fantastic Four movies); he engages the audience so thoroughly that he not only manages to make his showcase scene (and its dopey Journey jokes) play, but he pretty much takes over the picture. Elba is wasted (he's way more interesting than this character), but Morgan has a gruff charisma, and Saldana appears to be having a ball, particularly as she vamps it up in her early scenes as she and Morgan go from flirting to beating the hell out of each other--it doesn't matter, it's all foreplay (the fight scene generates more heat than the love scenes later in the film, even if it has become cartoonishly silly by the time they're literally burning the room down). She has a shoot-out in her underwear later in the film (glimpsed, of course, in the let's-move-some-tickets trailer) which is stylish as hell (plus, you know, Zoe in her underwear) and a good set piece overall; the bone-crunching fight scenes are also well-choreographed, and there's an impressive climactic stunt sequence (involving an airplane and a guy on the motorcycle) that quickened the pulse of even this cynic.
The damn thing ends about three times (once for a predictable payoff and a lame, lame joke), and proper closure is sacrificed in favor of opportunities for sequels. So The Losers is tonally schizophrenic, over-stylized, and frequently empty-headed--mostly sizzle, not much steak. But I'll give it this much: I wasn't bored. It establishes a fast, kinetic energy early on, and holds on to that pace with both hands. I saw an acclaimed international film earlier this week about crushing poverty and death and crime, and I know that film was good for me and this one was bad for me, but here's the thing: I'd watch The Losers like three more times before I'd watch that one again. Again, I'm not proud of myself, but there you have it. Here's a picture that is exactly what it is, nothing less, and certainly nothing more.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.