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‘The Losers’ Breaks its Way Onto the Big Screen [Review]

Things look grim for our hero. His roguish charm and wisecracks don’t seem to be doing much good against the gun to his head. But after a well-timed twist of the arm and punch to the face, he’s taken advantage of the situation and, depending on what rating the movie’s going for, the guy who traded his gun for a broken nose is either unconscious or bleeding to death. We’ve seen this scenario replayed time and time again on screens big and small. So what makes the difference? How much we, the audience, actually care about the good guy, how much we want to see him succeed and how satisfying it is to see him take the bad guy down, hard.

Comic series also thrive or fail based on whether or not the creative team makes sure the readers like the heroes and like hating the villains instead of taking those emotional responses for granted and skipping to the big set pieces. Comics readers are well aware that while similar fight scenes can happen thousands of times, how we feel about the combatants can make all the difference in which ones work and which ones don’t.

The Losers,” the big screen adaptation of the Vertigo series of the same name by writer Andy Diggle and artist Jock, doesn’t stand out from the crowd of similar action movies through any kind of spectacular, eye-popping visuals or set pieces. Where it does succeed is in is establishing a genuinely likable group of protagonists who you’re happy to root for against villains who are either despicably or delightfully evil. Roughly based on the first story arc of the comic series, “The Losers” tells the story of a special forces team left for dead after a failed mission that must fight powerful enemies high up in U.S. intelligence agency circles in order to get their lives back. (Spoilers follow.)

The movie stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clay and Zoe Saldana as Aisha, and they’re both fine as the standard tough guy/tough girl with a healthy degree of sexual tension (and, sometimes, unhealthy in a likely-to-cause-bruises sort of way). But the memorable performances of the film come from the supporting cast. First there’s Chris Evans, who as the team’s wisecracking hacker Jensen turns in another yet another scene-stealing role that simultaneously makes him difficult to picture as Captain America.

Then there’s Columbus Short as Pooch, the transportation expert who’s often at the center of the scenes that show off the great team camaraderie established by the cast. And there’s Jason Patric in an over-the-top performance as Max, the evil mastermind responsible for destroying the team’s lives and setting them on a quest for revenge. And while those three deserve special mention, the entire cast is honestly quite good. Idris Elba’s Roque is actually far more developed and sympathetic than the comic version of the character. And Oscar Jaenada takes the role of Cougar, the team’s silent sniper whose lines are brief and infrequent, and makes him feel like just as much a presence as the rest of the squad. The film’s cast is its greatest strength.

The curious thing about “The Losers” is that, despite the fact that it’s the story of a team of ex-special forces operatives all highly trained in the use of guns, fists, knives and assorted pieces of wood or glass to kill people, it’s more of a heist movie than a shoot ‘em up action flick. The best moments, many of them lifted directly from the comic, all involve the team breaking into somewhere or stealing something. Jensen’s infiltration into and escape from an office building, with a little help from Cougar, will undoubtedly be the scene people will be talking about as they leave the theater.

Sometimes, however, the movie does forget that it’s supposed to be a heist film, looks around and notices all the people with guns, and decides to stage a prolonged shoot-out that stalls the momentum a bit. And unfortunately this is most noticeable in the last third of the film. Again, though, the work the movie put into making you get invested in the characters during the first two-thirds means there’s still some pay-off when everything erupts into gunfire.

The film also makes one or two other questionable choices; there’s a super-bomb that Max has commissioned in order to sell to terrorists and engineer wars, thus allowing America to then step in and show off its power. But aside from one nifty visual effect there’s not much of a reason for the high-tech device to exist, as the team’s never aware of what it is or what it’s meant to do and so it only serves as one repeatedly used prop for showing how much of a bad guy Max is. Something that tied in more with what the rest of the characters were doing might have lessened the disconnect between Max’s scenes and the Losers’ scenes.

And Max himself is a character played to extremes, displaying a propensity towards “stupid evil” that makes the typical villain who kills the underling that has failed him seem reasonable by comparison. While I found it fun, it undercut his believability as a mastermind just a bit. Those two factors in some ways made it feel like the Losers and Max inhabited two separate films that somehow collided at the end. And if you’re a big fan of the comic, the one complaint you may have is about Aisha. Her character’s background is significantly altered to fit the movie. No longer is she a former child resistance fighter from Afghanistan. And while her new history adds an interesting twist once it’s revealed, until then she comes off blander in comparison to the source material.

On the whole, though, it is good to see the characters come to life on the big screen. And then to watch the montage of art by Jock over the closing credits. “The Losers” isn’t going to go down as one of the greatest movies ever adapted from comics, but it does give the audience a team of good guys they’ll happily root for and several reasons to laugh and cheer before it’s done.

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