It’s the bad guys vs. the worse guys in “The Losers,” director Sylvain White’s slick throwback to ’80s-style action movies, delivering elaborate setpieces, big explosions and larger-than-life characters in service of a stock betrayed-by-the-Man plot. The key difference: While “The Losers” looks to retro tough-talkin’, hard-R testosterone-fests for inspiration, polishing the formula somewhat with contempo pacing and effects, the result feels candy-coated for the PG-13 crowd. Released amid mixed marketing messages, pic will depend on teen interest in post-“Avatar” Zoe Saldana and an obscure DC Comics title to eke out a modest opening weekend.
Rooting interests are a ragtag bunch of Special Forces operatives, none of them stable enough to pass a standard psych exam, yet plenty resourceful when it comes to exacting revenge. Each identified by a nickname (Clay, Roque, Jensen, Pooch, Cougar) and a defiantly unsubtle physical characteristic (two-day beard, four-inch facial scar, mangy goatee and granny glasses, bald head, ponytail), the five guys are sent in to eliminate a target deep in the Bolivian jungle (actually scenic Puerto Rico).
Spotting a truck full of children in the drug dealer’s compound, the five risk their own lives to intervene, only to be betrayed by their backstabbing boss, Max (a high-level CIA player known only by voice), who engineers the explosion of their rescue chopper with the moppets on board. Naturally, they’re outraged, but it’s the audience that has reason to be upset that the movie could introduce and then toast 20 kids simply to explain why its protags switched sides.
Enter Aisha (Saldana), a character whose specialty seems to be instigating arbitrary fight and sex scenes. Like the Losers, she wants Max dead, though her motives are less clear. Amid tongue-in-cheek talk of “snukes” (imploding bombs that deliver “all the destruction, none of the pollution”) and other all-purpose villainy, Aisha’s presence among the guys triggers much of the banter that passes for personality in Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt’s recycled-parts screenplay. The challenge, when every line feels lifted from countless pics before it, is to make things sound fresh. There’s a little bit of Nicolas Cage’s “Bad Lieutenant” mojo in Jason Patric’s turn as Max, with the thesp pushing the psychopath shtick so far, he clearly isn’t afraid to see his work embraced as camp.
Otherwise, a few against-type casting choices make the team more memorable than its actual shenanigans. Kudos to whoever imagined Chris Evans in the endearing dork role of Jensen, for example, and bonus points for choosing Idris Elba as blades-and-bomb expert Roque (who was white in the original comic). The others feel like second or third choices for their parts, with “Watchmen’s” Jeffrey Dean Morgan delivering plenty of grizzle but no charisma as the Losers’ team leader, Clay.
Pic serves as a reminder that Hollywood’s recent fad of pulp-based franchise reboots (including Batman, Spidey and Hulk) finds its roots in the comicbook biz itself. The underlying “A-Team”-style limited series was itself Vertigo’s name-only reinvention of an early-’70s DC combat comic, and just as writer Andy Diggle and illustrator Jock used “The Losers” as an excuse to flash their style, so too does helmer White with his feature adaptation.
Lifting the best sequences from the comic — so many, in fact, that the pic virtually defines the idea of “action-packed” — White demonstrates an aptitude for spectacle worthy of producer Joel Silver’s imprimatur. Project marks a big step up from “Stomp the Yard,” the urban dance showcase that jumpstarted White’s career, though it betrays a disheartening interest in surface over substance. “The Losers” is the sort of pyro-heavy exercise parodied in “Tropic Thunder,” and no amount of production polish can hide the hollowness beneath its junk-food high.