Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Losers: Cut your losses

The Losers (2010) • View trailer for The Losers
Two stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, and rather generously, for profanity and considerable violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.29.10
Buy DVD: The Losers • Buy Blu-Ray: The Losers [Blu-ray]

One of Hollywood's enduring mysteries concerns the parameters that ultimately determine which films get released ... and which don't.

Who decides that dreck like Cop Out deserves mainstream exposure in every state in the country? In what rational universe could studio wonks have imagined that it would be cost-effective to secure theatrical booking for a low-rent horror turkey like The Black Waters of Echo's Pond?
Having destroyed a great deal of downtown real estate to retrieve a portable
hard drive belonging to their mysterious adversary, our heroes -- from left,
Alisha (Zoe Saldana), Jensen (Chris Evans), Roque Idris Elba, rear) and Pooch
(Columbus Short) -- pop it into a computer and try to figure out why it's so
valuable. Take a close look at this photo: It's a fairly serious scene, and yet
you'll observe that all these actors seem to be having trouble fighting a desire
to burst into laughter. That's the sort of quality you can expect from this flick.

Alternatively  and recalling the junk that does get released  why do perfectly good films get bypassed for theatrical distribution, consigned instead to the purgatory of direct-to-cable and satellite services?

We've all stumbled across them, while channel-surfing: decent flicks that grab our attention and hold us in the chair. Then, thoroughly satisfied as the final credits roll, we turn to our companions and say, with more than a little surprise, "Hey ... that was a lot better than the waste of time we endured at the cineplex last night."

Well, The Losers is one of those wastes of time.

Most blatantly, this seems veteran action producer Joel Silver's low-rent attempt to undercut the late summer release of The Expendables, the high-concept riff on The Dirty Dozen that will feature Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Mickey Rourke and just about every other alpha-testosterone star who ever shot, strafed and strutted across the big screen.

Note, for openers, the title similarity between The Losers and The Expendables. And the fact that both are derived from the suicide-mission aspect of director Robert Aldrich's muscular 1967 classic.

OK, true, The Losers is based on a comic book series written by Andy Diggle and illustrated by Jock, which gives it a certain amount of street cred in the minds of the young male target audience. But that doesn't change the fact that Silver and director Sylvain White (nobody we need to worry about for long) are slumming here; this laughable excuse for a movie is about as close to a live-action pinball game as I've ever seen.

Just about all the photos available in the press kit show one or more cast members holding one or more guns: sometimes standing, sometimes running. That's not because they all look cool in such poses, but because that's all these five guys do: This entire film is a series of disconnected and rather unimaginative shoot-'em-up scenes ... and they get tiresome very quickly.

The story, such as it is:

Our five heroes  Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Jensen (Chris Evans), Roque (Idris Elba), Pooch (Columbus Short) and Cougar (Oscar Jaenada)  are sent to Bolivia on what they assume is a routine search and destroy mission. Matters go awry when the targeted compound is found to contain a few dozen children. Clay tries to call off the aerial strike; when that fails, they abandon cover, charge forward, kill all the baddies and rescue the kids. With nary a scratch.

Wow. Ya gotta love it.

Sadly, it's all for naught, when the helicopter evacuating the kids is blown out of the sky. (This seems rather unpalatable for a PG-13 film.) Understanding that they were supposed to have been on the copter, our five guys toss their dog-tags into the fiery remains and go off the grid.

But a score remains to be settled: Clay knows, from radio contact, that they've been betrayed by a baddie named Max.

This high-camp villain is played with whimsical panache by Jason Patrick, the only actor in this mess who's smart enough not to take any of this nonsense seriously. He's a megalomaniac from the Snidely Whiplash school of performance art; he really needs a long mustache, so he can twirl the ends while sneering toward the camera.

In short, he's fun, which is more than can be said for anybody else.

The players also include a rogue female calling herself Aisha, and I can't imagine why a reasonably well-respected actress like Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek) let herself get sucked into this project.

Clay and Aisha beat the stuffing out of each other the first time they meet, trashing an entire hotel room in the process, but of course they're actually hot for each other. Not because this makes any sense at all, but because Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt's script says so.

As the film continues, we lose patience trying to determine whether Aisha's good or bad; I eventually decided that Saldana couldn't figure it out either, and just read the lines she was given each morning.

Our protagonists are one-dimensional cut-outs identified solely by their one-word names and one-note tics: Jensen's the snarky one; Pooch plops a little dog statue onto the dashboard of every vehicle he commandeers; Cougar loves his hat; Roque is the eternal devil's advocate; and Clay ... well, Clay's in charge. Because he's supposed to be.

And Morgan's the weakest actor of this pretty bad lot.

In an effort to be generous, I'll admit that Jensen's smug humor eventually grows on us, and Jaenada - the group's long-range sniper - does pretty well with his cool, silent act. But the rest do no more than posture and preen throughout this laughably flimsy storyline. Every line is delivered with the overblown 'tude that one would expect from sullen teenagers, and Morgan's the worst; even when he doesn't sigh heavily before speaking, he seems to.

Mind you, the cast can't really be blamed for their poor work here. Sylvain isn't qualified to direct traffic, and I doubt even the likes of Johnny Depp or Robert Downey Jr. could have breathed life into this stilted and ludicrous dialogue. This is old-style drive-in fodder: the sort of junk which, back in the 1960s, never would have escaped regional release in (most frequently) the very Deep South.

The oddly sanitized violence also is puzzling. Although our heroes sometimes use tranquilizer darts, to avoid killing civilians, the gunfire directed at  and coming from  Max's endless supply of goons involves plenty of heavy artillery and bodies blown to smithereens. But in a silly echo of long-gone big-screen westerns, the blood-squibs are absent; the faceless baddies just clutch their chests and kiss the concrete.

That "artistic" decision doesn't make this film any less violent, just not quite as messy ... while apparently qualifying it for the more family-friendly PG-13 (once more making a mockery of the entire ratings system). So we can add venal marketing hypocrisy to this flick's many other sins.

More to the point, this waltz around ratings is just stupid. If you're gonna make a picture like this, you gotta go whole hog; the pop-culture junkies lining up for the far more appropriately gory Kick-Ass will laugh this silly nonsense off the screen.

At the risk of stating the obvious, The Losers is very well named.

And why anybody at Warner Bros. thought it deserved wide exposure is another mystery for the ages.

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