By what looks like sheer coincidence, 2010 is the year of no less than three movies that are unpretentious, deliberate throwbacks to cheesy action films (and one cheesy TV series) of the '80s and early '90s. It gets even more coincidental when you consider that they all have similar two-word definitive-article titles: The Expendables, The A-Team, and The Losers. That last one, an adaptation of the Vertigo comicbook series by Andy Diggle and Jock, has the good luck to be the first out of the gate - which means it gets to set the standard by which the other two have to meet.
And it's a pretty damn high standard.
The Losers are a special-ops team comprising Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short), Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), and team leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). On a not-so-routine mission in Bolivia, they are betrayed, framed and left for dead - and then they are approached by the mysterious Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who offers them a deal. She will provide passage back to the U.S. and finance their mission to kill Max (Jason Patric), the shady CIA super-agent who sold them out - if she can be trusted. And Max and his henchman Wade (Holt McCallany) have evil plans of their own; they intend to purchase and sell - and perhaps use - an "environmentally-friendly" superweapon to start a world war for Max's own purposes.
Roger Ebert, in his review of Date Night, mentions one of the cardinal rules of comedy: a good comic actor never deliberately tries to act funny. I'm thinking now that a similar rule applies to action heroes in action movies - never deliberately try to be badass. Just be believable men (and women) of action, people for whom badassery is simply a job, a profession, something they do. Perform your action scenes as if you've been so well-trained in combat that life-and-death situations are practically routine to you. Deliver your tough-guy dialogue in perfectly calm and confident - but never cocky - tones, knowing full well that you have both the means and the predisposition to back up your threats.
The fact that The Losers adheres to this rule is what makes it such a pleasure. Our titular team of tough guys - and one tough girl - are played by a terrific cast who all manage to capture just the right tonality for their characters and the film as a whole. Jeffrey Dean Morgan proved his action hero chops in Watchmen, but Clay is a very different character from the Comedian; shallower perhaps, but a lot more likable and easier to root for. Idris Elba, best known for his role on the TV series The Wire, also gets just the right tonality in his performance for a movie like this. And it helps a lot that they're both older actors who look like they've had long and storied careers in badassery. They're unfailingly badass without ever trying too hard to be badass.
The rest of the team are younger, but that doesn't hurt their performances either. Columbus Short's and Chris Evans' roles are mostly comic relief, and they pull it off just as well; Evans especially is a hoot, and he gets the most hilariously awesome scene in the movie that also features the best use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" since the first episode of Glee. Zoe Saldana may have the toughest job of them all because she has neither the benefit of age nor a bunch of one-liners to deliver - but she compensates with, first, the kind of utter confidence in her own badassery that I mentioned, and second, a smokin'-hot sexiness that she's perfectly willing to allow the camera to exploit.
And director Sylvain White is perfectly capable of capturing both that sexiness and everyone's badassness. His only other film of note was urban dance flick Stomp the Yard, but he proves himself a sure hand at action here, employing all the usual tricks - slo-mo, jump cuts, and an eye for shots that are just plain awesome, especially the one where Aisha fires that rocket launcher. He also knows when to plant the film's tongue in its cheek and when to play it seriously, which is a delicate balancing act that many other films that aim for deliberate cheese don't manage to pull off. If there's one element to The Losers that upsets it, it's Jason Patric's cartoonishly evil villain. He's clearly meant to be played for laughs, but definitely pushes the film a little too far into self-parody territory.
Seriously, this movie is all about cool. Remember Ocean's 11? I was reminded very much of that George Clooney-Brad Pitt-Steven Soderbergh heist flick while watching this, because it similarly trades on the sheer - and shared - coolness of its actors. There are even (arguably unnecessary) scenes in which the characters do nothing but banter and/or bicker, because their chemistry is just that much fun to watch. Truth be told, its coolness is evident in the trailer already, so if that doesn't look like a freightload of fun to you, then you'd probably do well to skip it. Me, I totally dug it, I enjoyed it better than Kick-Ass, and yes, I know that statement's likely to engender some "WTF!?" reactions from you guys. But TMBF sez it like TMBF sees it. This is the real kick-ass action movie to kick off the summer blockbuster season.
NEXT REVIEW: Iron Man 2