The Losers Demonstrates the Good and Bad of Comic-Book Adaptations

It's tempting and surely reasonable to write off Sylvain White's The Losers as a spring stop-gap in Hollywood's comic-book mania, but with one sticking point: Had you ever heard of The Losers? A few out there may be familiar with DC Comics' original World War II-themed series, and more than likely plenty of fanboys were onboard with Andy Diggle and Jock's 2003 reimagining for DC's mature-audiences imprint Vertigo. But Watchmen it's not: While the steady resurgence of the comics industry led to a decade's worth of well-established superhero movies and iffy adaptations of high-profile graphic novels, The Losers is the rare exception that takes Hollywood a little deeper into comics. Pair a wild action series like this, for instance, with an ingratiating B-movie house like Dark Castle Films, and throw in a director with something to prove. There are worse things to spend your studio's money on.

It's immediately apparent that White's film has no intention of disguising its origins. A few moments of "Look! It's a comic-book movie" graphic flourishes punctuate a wordy introduction to our bland band of CIA special-ops bad-asses, led by Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Col. Franklin Clay. Then the team gets involved in a gratuitous, visually nonsensical raid on a Bolivian village that ends with a chopper full of dead orphans. (White's design for the film plays up the color, makes everything cartoony, then kind of bashes things together clumsily like a kid playing alone with G.I. Joe toys.) Clay's slo-mo emoting amidst the wreckage—the result of an ill-defined betrayal that leaves his whole team assumed dead—gets a chuckle in a film that spends its opening sequence asserting its heroes' violent disregard for human life. It's sentimental in its nihilism.

It doesn't let up, either. The Losers is a good example of how silly the PG-13 rating is—the movie casually but bloodlessly clocks a body count in the dozens, most of them killed by our "heroes," who enlist the help of the alluring Aisha (Zoe Saldana) in hunting down the conspicuously cartoony supervillain (Jason Patric, trying hard to channel Will Ferrell) who put them in this mess. White leans too hard on the comic book as a storyboard, and the Losers' swath of destruction is harder to swallow when sketches turn to flesh and blood. (They at least use tranquilizer darts instead of bullets during the hijacking of a U.S. military helicopter.) The dead kids and a convoluted mid-film twist give The Losers its only human ideas, but one is a MacGuffin and the other peters out in stalemate.

Jim Vanderbilt and Peter Berg's script also relies too heavily on Diggle's book, or at the very least it comes off that way. A snappy, sardonic tone puts The Losers well above dismal action-flick standards, but the material itself is stereotypical edgy comics, full of labored back-and-forths that work fine from panel to panel but leave a film's cast alternately mugging and stumbling. Some of it works, more of it doesn't, which can be said for the movie itself.

Still, there are dividends to all this comic-cribbing. The Losers has earned its place on the big screen, originating in a work that typifies the comics world's creative advantage over the cinema: Comic-book creators can use a lot of the same tricks but never have to worry about a budget. When White can keep a handle on his action sequences—which isn't always—this retranslation, and the style roughly fitted to it, carry over a wealth of explosive eye candy, including island-imploding WMDs, an incendiary guy-on-girl tussle and liberal use of rocket launchers. The format of a multi-issue comic-book story arc jibes well with the rhythms of a globe-trotting action movie where the capering has priority over the dramatic conflict. The Losers occasionally repeats itself, and feels slightly long even under 100 minutes, but there is an appealing momentum.

So it's a fun movie, the sort that breaks out Ram Jam's "Black Betty" before it hits the three-minute mark. (The pop songs all sit high in the mix, and one even repeats for no reason; funny how a perfectly handsome film can make itself come across as a second-rate music video.) It's not a tell-your-friends crowd pleaser, and it won't bring anyone new to the comic shops the way Edgar Wright's upcoming Scott Pilgrim is sure to do. But if they're going to keep up the adaptations, why not adapt less popular material that might actually be a pretty righteous movie? The Losers is at worst an honest effort.