The first comic book series called The Losers was a feature in war comics published by DC in the early 1970s, with writer Robert Kanigher gathering up several characters who’d appeared in previous war comics to form a team that fought for the allies in World War II.
In 2003, writer Andy Diggle and artist Jock teamed up to create a modern-day Losers comic for DC’s Vertigo imprint, this time featuring a rogue special-ops team working for the U.S. government, until they’re betrayed.
In 2010, a film adaptation of the latter comic was released.
The comic book ran for 32 issues from 2003-2006, and portrayed a team of lateral-thinking operatives who formed a team nicknamed “the Losers.” Betrayed by their CIA handler, a mysterious operative called only “Max,” the Losers fake their deaths and then work to clear their names.
It’s a very A-Team-style storyline, albeit one that is very much steeped in a post-9/11 world of terrorism, contract soldiers, and big business controlling government maneuvers.
Diggle has said in interviews that he never read the original 1970s comics that used the same team name, and indeed, the Vertigo comic is a significant update and change from the original—though both Kanigher’s original (written in the midst of discontent over the Vietnam War) and Diggle’s update have serious anti-war overtones. Diggle’s work, however, is significantly more cynical.
Peter Berg wrote the first draft of the screenplay intending to direct it, and then when he wound up doing Hancock instead, Tim Story was announced as the film’s director. Later, Sylvain White replaced Story.
The cast is full of folks we’ve seen before in this rewatch: Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen, Jonah Hex, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) as Clay, Chris Evans (two Fantastic Four movies, two Captain America movies, two Avengers movies) as Jensen, Zoë Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy) as Aisha, Idris Elba (Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, two Thor movies, Avengers: Age of Ultron) as Roque, and Holt McCallany (Justice League) as Wade. In addition, Jason Patric plays Max, Columbus Short plays Pooch, and Óscar Jaenada plays Cougar.
The film came out around the same time as the movie version of the similarly themed The A-Team with Liam Neeson, and got a lukewarm reception.
“Because if I were lying, I wouldn’t have used the words ‘suicide mission’…”
Written by Peter Berg and James Vanderbilt
Directed by Sylvain White
Produced by Joel Silver, Akiva Goldsman, and Kerry Foster
Original release date: April 23, 2010
In Bolivia, a military team that refers to itself as “the Losers” is on their latest mission: to “paint” a compound of a drug dealer with a laser target that a fighter jet can then use to hit it with a bomb.
After they do so, they discover that the compound has children present. Their CIA handler, who calls himself Max even though you’re not supposed to use names over an open comm line, says he doesn’t care and orders the attack to continue.
The Losers go in and get the kids free in the nick of time. The chopper that’s exfiltrating them can’t fit the Losers and the kids, so the leader, Clay, tells the chopper pilot to take the kids.
Max then orders the chopper destroyed, making the Losers’ work for naught.
Since they’re believed killed, the Losers throw their dogtags into the wreckage and lay low in Bolivia. Clay wants revenge on Max, while Roque just wants to get clean passports and sneak home. Jensen hacks into satellites so Pooch can keep an eye on his pregnant wife, while Jensen keeps track of his niece’s school soccer team.
A woman named Aisha approaches Clay, offering them a way back into the States safely in exchange for getting revenge on Max, against whom she also has an undisclosed animus. They pretend to be soldiers in need of medical attention in order to steal a medevac helicopter, which they use to lift an armored car that Aisha says has Max in it.
It doesn’t—it has an encrypted hard drive, belonging to Goliath, a large corporation that has fingers in many pies, including some military stuff. Aisha admits to not knowing where Max is, but the drive is important to him. Jensen has to break into Goliath to get the algorithm to decrypt off a computer, which he barely gets out alive with, saved only by Cougar’s sharp-shooting.
Among the things they learn, besides the fact that Goliath is into all kinds of illegal stuff on the CIA’s behalf, is that Aisha’s father is the same drug lord who owned the compound destroyed at the top of the movie. There’s a shootout with Aisha once her deception is discovered, and she escapes.
The drive also tells them that Max has a deal going down at the Port of Los Angeles. They attack it, with the notion of getting revenge on Max. However, Roque—who all along has just wanted to go on with his life—betrays them to Max’s chief of security, Wade. Wade and Max plan to frame the Losers for stealing a pile of CIA money—which Max will instead steal, with Wade and Roque getting a cut.
However, Aisha shows up and blows up part of the port with an RPG. Clay kills both Roque and Wade, and also blows up the plane with the cash. Max manages to get away, but his face is now known, and he is also low on resources—the last time we see him, he’s on a bus being robbed by two guys who like his watch.
The Losers’ next task is to get Pooch into the hospital so he can be there for his wife giving birth.
“This is Stupid Question Day and nobody decided to tell me”
What’s especially frustrating about this movie is that the comic book that Andy Diggle wrote would make a fantastic movie. The story and the art—by Jock and others—is incredibly cinematic.
But this is not it.
The best bits in this mess of a movie are the ones that are straight out of the comic: e.g., the theft of the helicopter (which opens the first issue of the comic, though we’re two-thirds of the way through the film by the time we get to it), the climactic fight, Jensen’s data theft at Goliath.
The changes that are made are almost entirely for the worse. Roque’s betrayal in the comic is a surprise, and an effective one, since the story was pointing you to Aisha betraying them. In the movie, it’s not remotely a surprise because Roque has spent the entire movie pissing and moaning and bitching to Clay about the course of action they’re taking. There’s a line between foreshadowing and being predictable, and the movie dances all over it, not always to good effect.
For reasons passing understanding, Max is played by Jason Patric as a stereotypical twenty-first-century quippy bad guy. The problem is, Patric is absolutely terrible at it, coming across as a weak parody of that type of villain, mixed with lots of tiresome “hey look, he’s evil!!!!” moments—the worst being when he casually kills a woman holding a sun umbrella for him who gets caught in the wind and exposes him briefly to the sun. When I saw that Holt McCallany was playing Wade, I was thrilled—but then he was played as an idiot, who says stupid stuff so Max can make fun of him. Snore. (In the comics, Wade is actually a worthy adversary.)
More generally, one of the appeals of The Losers comic was that it was a cynical, nasty commentary on U.S. foreign policy, going back to the Reagan era, with particular emphasis on the way 9/11 skewed everything. The villains of the comic were the U.S. government, the CIA, and the large corporations in general and Goliath in particular. The movie has none of that, sticking with Max as the Evil Bad Guy with very little of the CIA or the government or Goliath (beyond Jensen’s data theft). It turns the brutal commentary of the comic into a boring fight against a virtual super-villain.
But the worst change, the thing that makes this movie the most awful, is the ruining of the character of Aisha. In the comic, Aisha is the badassiest of badasses, who spends her spare time rescuing women from oppressive regimes and helping them start over in the U.S.—and also keeping an eye on them when they’re in America to make sure they’re not exploited further. She’s also a CIA asset, trying to bring the company’s mendacity down from within.
While she’s still a badass in the movie, it’s been severely muted, and they’ve swapped out her helping exploited women to her being Clay’s love interest so Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoë Saldana can have a couple of sex scenes. As pretty as they both are, this is not an improvement.
What’s especially frustrating is that—Patric very loudly excepted—they could not have done a better casting job. Not that it’s really a surprise that Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Morgan, and Saldana are awesome. In addition, Óscar Jaenada utterly nails Cougar’s laconic charm, and Columbus Short is the movie’s second-best character as the hilarious Pooch. Short is the anti-Patric, as every single one-liner and smartass remark out of his mouth lands perfectly.
The best, though, is Evans, in a role between his two superhero parts, and just like his superlative Human Torch and his transcendent Captain America, he absolutely nails Jensen. In the comic, Jensen is the most fun character, and Evans inhabits him more perfectly than anyone else. (Though I’m sure Saldana could have inhabited the comics character of Aisha if they’d let her.)
What could have been a great action movie with some good satirical commentary on modern politics is instead a mediocre action movie with some decent funny dialogue, some good acting on the part of the good guys, and two dreadful villains.
Next up, we get another secret government operation, albeit one a bit more dignified. (Well, only a bit more…) For the next two weeks, we examine Matt Vaughn’s Kingsman movies.