Writer Andy Diggle dedicated his snappy DC comic books The Losers to '80s screenwriting superstar Shane Black, creator of the Lethal Weapon series. But in adapting The Losers for film, director Sylvain White and screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Peter Berg strain to achieve the pleasurable mix of cheap laughs and expensive action that Lethal Weapon pulled off effortlessly with the help of its stellar cast. (In a remarkable example of an actor finding his ideal role, Gary Busey played LW's haywire, half-cocked villain.) What they've produced instead is a busy, unsatisfying comic thriller, poorly acted by a grab bag of new faces and franchise movie refugees, and set to a hard-rock soundtrack.
The Losers opens with its eponymous team of Special Forces ops staking out a drug lord's South American compound, preparing for attack. The inconveniently timed arrival of a busload of children provides both an opportunity for our heroes to show their nobility, and a herd of adorable sacrificial lambs to set the movie's plot shuddering ahead. One smoldering teddy bear later, the Losers are presumed dead — and loaded for revenge on the shadowy figure who tried to take them out. (Oh, and killed 25 children.)
Who is that shadowy figure? Why, it's Max, played by Jason Patric, about whom it must be said: He's no Gary Busey. While that is a great comfort, I'm sure, to Patric's neighbors, it's little help to the movie. Max has a deep tan, ties to the CIA, and an interest in a very fake-seeming weapon called a "snuke" (a sonic nuke, obviously). Max swans around a number of exotic locales, occasionally killing some poor soul for sport, but Patric plays his scenes so ineptly (often for laughs, but he's bad at comedy) that Max becomes an object of scorn rather than, as is proper in any good action movie, of fascination. He wears a single white glove! He makes Slumdog Millionaire jokes to his Indian weapons designers! The character is a mishmash of bad ideas, and Patric lacks the charisma to bring any of them to life.
In the face of this unworthy adversary, we're dependent on our heroes to carry the movie. But only one of them shows real signs of life. Idris Elba, as the scar-faced Roque, acts as the group's voice of reason and is the only character whose surface coolness peels back to reveal hidden depths. The rest are just types. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) is the cocksure leader — a meatier, less nimble Robert Downey Jr. Chris Evans (Fantastic Four) is the smartass computer expert, who wears stupid T-shirts and makes the ladies swoon. Columbus Short and Óscar Jaenada barely make an impression as, respectively, the garrulous family man and the silent sniper.
And then there's Zoe Saldana, who — as Uhura in Star Trek and Neytiri in Avatar — showed herself to have relatively good taste in blockbusters. It fails her here, and her character, an Agency asset named Aisha, is a disaster, especially compared to the Aisha that Diggle dreamed up for his comics series. I'm not one to demand that comic-book movies remain utterly faithful to their source material; such unyielding fealty sure didn't do Watchmen any favors. And anyway, Diggle's Losers is a lark, not a classic — from its first issue, it was begging for the Hollywood treatment. But it would be nice if full-scale character rewrites made characters better, not lamer. In the comic, Aisha is intimidating, complicated, and spooky, a native Afghan whose childhood battles with Soviet soldiers gave her a taste for blood. In the movie, she's a sexpot who wears red leather pants (or, during shootouts, her underwear). The comics biz has always written oversexualized, underdeveloped female characters. In The Losers, Hollywood manages to outcomic the comics.