The Losers Get Lucky
Review by Caroline Pruett
If you want to see a future cult classic right now, skip the big summer blockbusters and check out The Losers — assuming you can find it. This movie opened weakly at the box office, drowning in a glut of similar-sounding films. A lot of comics fans knew it because the film, directed by Sylvain White, is based on a series created by Andy Diggle and Jock and published by Vertigo (more on that below). But for the general public, The Losers was badly marketed and hard to distinguish from half the other movies coming out this year. Judging by the pre-show trailers, anyway, 2010 will be the summer of the A-Team knock-off. And it’s true: The Losers is a movie about a scrappy band of Special Forces soldiers, falsely accused of wrongdoing, who use their specialized training and abilities to get back at The Man.
Still, I have a feeling that, when the smoke clears, The Losers will be the last knockoff standing. This is the movie that will get midnight showings on college campuses. It’s the DVD people will buy and play over and over until it wears out. It will have the dialogue that action-movie nerds will be quoting at each other to see who “gets it.” (There are lots of choice quotations, though I’m partial to Chris Evans’ total non sequitur: “Cats, man. Not to be trusted”).
Or I could be wrong. Maybe The Losers will just fade away. Still. It’s worth seeing if you have a chance to see it, and if you like your action movies fast-paced, quippy, and heavy on explosions. But it’s mostly worth seeing for the cast: Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Zoe Saldana, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Columbus Short, and Oscar Jaenada make the most charming band of misfits you’re likely to come across. (And also, let’s be honest, one of the prettiest). None of these actors is exactly a household name yet, but Saldana, Elba and Evans — who was recently cast in the upcoming Captain America film — all seem to be on the verge of breaking out. As for Morgan, he already has a cult following built on roles in such disparate properties as Grey’s Anatomy, Supernatural and Watchmen. I’d never seen Short or Jaenada before, but I’d definitely watch them again. The Losers could turn out to be one of those films we watch in ten years and say, I can’t believe they got all these people to be in this!
But to give credit where it’s due: this is never going to be a Big Sexy Hospital situation, where all the pleasure comes from watching recognizable actors play off of each other. Each member of the Losers has a strong, individually drawn character, and a lot of the thanks for that should go to the work writer Diggle and artist Jock did in creating them. The driven team leader Clay (Morgan), the mysterious badass Aisha (Saldana), and the wisecracking spazz Jensen (Evans) all have their roots in the comic. Some of the characters (particularly Aisha and Jaenada’s sniper Cougar) have a lot more dimension on the page than what makes it onto the screen, but overall, the translation is quite well done. Better, certainly, than most superhero adaptations manage, which is a testament to how good Diggle and Jock are at creating characters who feel like real people.
This isn’t to say that The Losers is a precise adaptation — or a “faithful” one, whatever that slippery word means in this context. The style of the movie fits the book well; both are bright and flashy, kinetic and often gleefully violent. In fact, The Losers is apparently rated PG-13 rather than R on the basis that the violence happens fast enough that the camera doesn’t linger on it, and nobody says the F-word very much. It’s no Kick-Ass, but if excessive violence is an issue for you, give this one a miss.
If the style of the two works is similar, though, the tone is strikingly different. If the movie fits the aesthetic of a Pierce Brosnan Bond film (while being better than any of the Bonds that Brosnan actually made), the book is more of a Daniel Craig Bond film. The world of Diggle’s Losers is highly geopolitically aware. The movie shows a North African drug lord being assassinated in South America for no apparent reason. But in the comic, it matters very much where things happen, and anybody who ignores the rules of place and alliance does so at their own risk. The book’s characters are distinguished not just by their personality quirks but by what they believe. Every major character in The Losers has a capacity for violence, for treachery, and for sacrifice. Yet they’re each willing to kill, and each willing to die, for different and distinct things. It’s a credit to the strength of Diggle’s writing — to the precision of the conflicts he creates — that, for each of these characters, I have a pretty good idea what those things are.
The film, unfortunately, is almost completely lacking in this kind of moral subtlety. In fact, I almost walked out during the pre-credit teaser, because there’s a story point regarding endangered children that smacks of audience manipulation. Further, the reason for this manipulation is apparently to convince us that our heroes (despite being violent killers) care about innocents, and their enemy doesn’t. This dynamic is then completely ignored for the rest of the movie, so that it only comes across as a license for our heroes to do whatever violent, dishonest things they want because, you know, they’re the ones who care about the kids. It didn’t ruin the movie for me, but I’d almost rather have watched it without the opening sequence.
Plotwise, the comic has a similar incident, but we don’t learn about it until almost exactly halfway through the series, when Clay relates it to Aisha. By that point in the book, the revelation feels earned. The story has been driven, up to that point, by Clay’s moral certainty (or, less charitably, by his arrogance). Diggle’s decision to hold back the Losers’ “origin” until after he’s shown the characters in action demonstrates a real respect for the readers’ perception and moral intelligence. If that kind of respect sounds like something you’d like to have more of in your comics (I know I’d like more of it in the ones I read), I suggest reading The Losers.
This ought to be the point where I triumphantly point to a place where you can buy all 32 issues of the comic in an attractive collection. Unfortunately, I can’t do that because — in a marketing move that seems boneheaded even for DC Comics, whose collections program is notoriously unreliable — the final trade paperback of The Losers is out of print. I was able to buy all five books because they happened to be on the shelf at my local store on Free Comic Book Day, but I would have bought them off Amazon the day I saw the movie if I’d had the chance. So, I’d guess, would a lot of people.
Not only did Warner Brothers and DC do a lousy job of selling this highly enjoyable movie, they didn’t even let the movie do the job of selling an equally, though differently, enjoyable book. For now, if you don’t have a store that stocks the TPBs, you can order the first two books in one volume, and the third and fourth individually, though those may be made obsolete when the second collection releases in August.
Come on, DC. With a trade policy like that, the “losers” are all of us.
This is Johanna: I have big thanks for Caroline for sharing her thoughts on the movie and graphic novels. After hearing her talk about them, I knew more people should hear what she had to say. She made me interested in seeing the film, even though it didn’t look like my kind of thing, although with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Chris Evans, I was easy to persuade.
If you’d like to read more, she blogs at Fantastic Fangirls and Diary of a Mad Marvel Girl, and is on Twitter under the name @madmarvelgirl.