‘Losers’ lives for the thrill of violence
‘The Losers’’ is another plastic thingamabob that’s been hoisted up by one of those carnival claw machines. The amusement it provides is cheap, disposable, and hardly worth the number of quarters you fed into the slot in a frenzy not to go home empty-handed. It’s based on a comic book from one of DC’s offshoots, and the director, Sylvain White, does everything he can to approximate the unreality of certain comic book titles. In an early sequence, the film’s gang of CIA-contracted mercenaries ambushes a bad guy’s Bolivian compound. The bullets hit bodies, the bodies wrench, and the frame freezes. Rinse and repeat.
The quintet of mercenaries is introduced in close-ups that hold long enough for the live-action to burst into a comic book sketch that prints the character’s nickname and function. So it’s clear the actors playing these men — Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Idris Elba, Chris Evans, Columbus Short, and Oscar Jaenada — will live and die based on their ability to riff on one note. (Evans and Short prove budding maestros at this.)
The movie looks bright and feels manic. It’s going for “thwap,’’ “pow,’’ and “bam.’’ The images in the frame speed up and slow down. And very few shots last longer than two or three seconds. Like nearly all action movies, horror films, and thrillers in the last 15 years, a sense of motion is conveyed predominately with editing as opposed to through physical space. The compression of time, distance, and movement into hectic cuts is deadening. This was a style of storytelling perfected by the editor Dede Allen, who died last week. Her work — “The Hustler,’’ “Bonnie and Clyde ’’ and “Dog Day Afternoon,’’ for example — could be swift, but it was always soulful, never losing a story or the energy that drives it forward. This new mode of editing, what the film scholar David Bordwell has called “intensified continuity,’’ stampedes over both natural spatial relations and cinematic ingenuity.
Things move fast in “The Losers,’’ but nothing feels urgent. The movie revolves around the men’s hunt for the corrupt boss (Jason Patric) who betrayed them, and the sex bomb-assassin-mystery woman (Zoë Saldana) who promises to lead them to him. Maybe I’m waiting for a version of this to happen all over again in this summer’s “The A-Team’’ makeover, but I didn’t care whether these guys found their target. Neither, really, does the film, which was co-written by the actor and director Peter Berg, whose propulsive, virile moviemaking (“The Rundown,’’ “Friday Night Lights,’’ “The Kingdom’’) White emulates.
But jokiness rots the thrill. Patric thinks his dapper, oily villain is better than it actually is. He’s just doing Gene Hackman in “Superman.’’ As with “Kick-Ass’’ and Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,’’ heavy artillery in “The Losers’’ is deployed for comedy. When a cornered Evans points his fingers like a gun and squeezes, the guards who surround him fall down. Until a sniper’s assistance is confirmed, it looks like magic.
The movie is more persuasive tussling and shooting than it is trying to connect with people. Anyway, we see Morgan and Saldana connecting principally through brute force. We’ve reached a point in American movies where violence is the new sex. Once upon a time, when, say, the screenwriter Joe Eszterhas was one of Hollywood’s most lucrative viruses in the 1980s and early ’90s, most violence was graphic and merely lewdly suggestive. When Sharon Stone wanted sex, she strapped Michael Douglas to her bed.
Gradually, depictions of sex declined while a new type of violence seemed to flourish. The Ezsterhas era, which saw a rise in the number of mysteriously dangerous women, peaked by 1992 and the Quentin Tarantino period began. Tarantino wrote parts for women. Sometimes men hit those women. And Tarantino being a kind of revenge feminist found ways for the women to hit back. In everything from “Charlie’s Angels ’’ and “Mr. and Mrs. Smith ’’ to Tarantino’s two “Kill Bill ’’ movies, women and men fight each other with mutual delight.
A movie like “The Losers,’’ which unbelievably enough is rated PG-13, sees this to its logical end. Morgan and Saldana punch each other silly. She throws him into a wall. He returns the favor. Her legs wind up wrapped around him. He winds up underneath her. Depending on where you stand, the ubiquity of all the red in the room signals either romance or sadism. But it’s more inane than hot — and predicted years ago by David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence.’’ Morgan and Saldana’s actual love scenes are paint-drying affairs by comparison. Rough stuff is the only intimacy this movie knows. Forget condoms. Wear Kevlar.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.