Peter Berg and Jamie Vanderbilt wrote the screenplay for “The Rundown,” which is still probably the best film that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has starred in, and there’s a lot of that film’s strengths on display in their latest produced script, “The Losers,” adapted from the DC/Vertigo comic series about a disgraced bunch of black ops specialists who go to war with a rogue CIA agent. Sylvain White directs a fairly great ensemble of charismatic character actors, all of them giving solid, fun performances, and the entire thing has a breezy, casual charm that I found difficult to resist. It’s not particularly memorable, but it’s preposterous fun while you’re watching it, and it should be an effective showcase for everyone involved.
As the film’s ostensible leads, Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana both seem determined to burn holes in the screen with the smoldering they’re doing, and the way the two of them play off of each other is a lesson in PG-13 sexual tension. They’ve got a first scene together that doesn’t make any real story sense, but it’s not about story… it’s about throwing punches as foreplay, and both Morgan and Saldana take tangible pleasure in the sequence. It’s my favorite example of this type of unconventional meet-cute since “Out Of Sight’ and the trunk sequence, with the difference being that this time, both ends of the equation are of equal strength. Saldana’s coming off the best year of her career, and she’s well aware of just how she comes off onscreen these days. It’s been a slow burn, but suddenly she’s in total command of her presence. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan is one of those guys who seems like he’s been a movie star his whole life. Here, he’s the swagger at the center of “The Losers,” the guy whose job it is to harness all of these outsized personalities into one cohesive team. He has to be the biggest charisma in the room to wrangle the others, and in a group like this, that’s no easy feat.
There’s Chris Evans, for one. Anyone still on the fence about him playing Captain America for Marvel Studios should see his work here. He’s ridiculous from beginning to end, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. He plays the team’s technical specialist, and he has several stand-out scenes, able to turn even throw-away jokes into dead-center punchlines. He’s got really strong chemistry with Columbus Short as Pooch, who also seems to be a technical specialist of sorts in the film. One of the script’s flaws is that the team is not as well-distinguished as they all should be. Probably the most distinct member of the team in terms of specialty is Cougar, played by Oscar Jaenada. He’s worked with Soderbergh and Jarmusch before this, primarily in Spanish, and he’s played as a man of very few words in the film. He’s the sniper, the silent killer from a distance, and he comes across as effortlessly cool. Then there’s Idris Elba, who seems to be Morgan’s equal on the team, the second-in-command, and as things progressively keep going to hell over the course of the film, he’s the one person who is able to stand up to Morgan and call him out for what he sees as bad decisions, particularly once Saldana starts influencing those decisions.
For me, the main reason to recommend the film to anyone is the performance by Jason Patric as Max, the film’s bad guy. He is a moustache-twirling bad guy, chewing scenery from the moment he shows up. I have never found Patric funny on film. I’m a fan, but he’s always been a sort of raw nerve as a performer. This is basically a reinvention for him, and he is remorseless evil with a wry smile. I think his work here is some of the best he’s done, and it is significant that it’s in a PG-13 comic book movie. He needed this. For those of us who were fans of his early work, it’s been very frustrating to watch him languish the last few years. I’m sure there’s plenty more great dark mature work in his future, but this sort of performance buys him the opportunity to trade back and forth between indie and studio pictures, something he’s never really had with any success.
The script is a big bag of familiar, and that’s not an issue. It’s actually fairly modest in terms of scale. No one’s saving the world here. The Losers just want to repair their own damaged reputations. With a series of ’80s throwback action films coming out this summer, including “The A-Team” and “The Expendables,” this one has the advantage of being the first one out of the gate, and it sets a solid mark for the others to aspire to. “The Losers” is, above all else, fun, and that fun means that the things that don’t work about it seem terribly unimportant. It moves, it’s got attitude, and it is frequently laugh-out-loud funny, while the action scenes all respect the laws of physics just enough to ground the film. Sylvain White scored a surprise hit with “Stomp The Yard,” but his work here suggests that’s not an accident, and now I’m curious to see what he does with Frank Miller’s “Ronin” if he is able to get it off the ground.
“The Losers” opens Friday at theaters everywhere.
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