On paper Sylvain White’s ensemble thriller The Losers doesn’t display much promise. Its budget (around $25 million) is miniscule by action-movie standards; its cast apart from female lead Zoe Saldana is unexceptional; and its plot about a group of disgraced Special Forces operatives who seek revenge against the shady arms dealer (Jason Patric) who had them framed is hardly original. And yet The Losers makes for a surprisingly entertaining ride an apt prelude to the summer blockbuster season. Call it The B-Team.
Though based on a graphic novel (what Hollywood movie today isn’t?) The Losers boasts no superheroes just a quintet of mercenaries with complementary skills and catchy names like Cougar and Pooch. Presumed dead after being double-crossed during a black ops mission in the Bolivian jungle they languish in a third-world limbo until a mysterious woman named Aisha (Saldana) approaches their leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) with an enticing opportunity.
The Losers establishes a lively pace from the outset and with the exception of one appallingly disjointed planning scene director White adroitly handles the challenges of a plus-size cast. Save for a few extraneous twists that mar the film’s second half screenwriters James Vanderbilt and Peter Berg maintain a straightforward storyline keeping the tone determinedly light (always best when dealing with the constraints of a PG-13 rating) but never too cartoonish -- at least not by comic book-movie standards.
Morgan who previously underwhelmed in Zack Snyder’s doomed Watchmen adaptation isn’t the ideal choice to headline the film’s male cast and he appears hopelessly overmatched by Saldana. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if The Losers didn’t try to sell us on a hastily-hatched romantic subplot between the two which serves only to provide us with a few scantily-clad glimpses of the sultry Avatar star. Needless to say there are worse sins a filmmaker can commit.
The only aspect of The Losers that truly vexed me was the performance of one of its castmembers. I doubt that Joe Johnston director of the upcoming Captain America adaptation caught a screening of this film before he chose to award Chris Evans the coveted starring role in the big-budget comic-book flick. Because if he had I’m certain he’d have chosen differently. Evans’ clownish wiseass routine is instantly and perpetually grating. Even when delivering the most innocuous of line readings he radiates a natural douchiness that no Super Serum can fix.
Vantage Point gives us just that--a birds-eyed view of an assassination/terrorist attack on the U.S. president. In Spain at a landmark outdoor summit on the global war on terror President Ashton (William Hurt) is shot and a bomb explodes killing hundreds of people. For the rest of the film we see the same 15 minutes over and over but from different points of view: There’s a CNN-like news producer (Sigourney Weaver) who is the first to witness the events; the Secret Service agents (Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox) assigned to protect the president; an American tourist (Forest Whitaker) videotaping the historic event; a Spanish cop (Eduardo Noriega) who suspects what’s going down by the surreptitious actions of his girlfriend (Ayelet Zurer) at the rally; and most importantly the head terrorist (Said Taghmaoui) who orchestrates it all. Through each of these individual perspectives we learn the truth behind the assassination attempt--and as far-fetched as it is it still isn’t pretty. This is an all-out action thriller folks--quiet subtle performances are not required. Quaid goes full blast as the veteran Secret Service agent who has already taken a bullet for the president once before and is still a bit skittish about it. But his loyalty to the president never wavers and it’s through his determination to find out what happened that propels the story forward. Fox also plays it to the hilt much like he does as Jack on TV’s Lost but the actor has a certain movie-star quality to him; he could easily transition from TV to film. Whitaker unfortunately has to play the big schlub with a heart--which at this point seems a tad beneath the Oscar-winner--but he still gives it his all. Hurt’s Head of State is another one of those dream presidents we wish we had. Taghmaoui (The Kite Runner) and Zurer (28 Weeks Later) are adequately cold-hearted as the terrorists while Edgar Ramirez (Domino) effectively emotes as a reluctant member of the terrorist cell forced to do their bidding while his brother is being held captive. Did we mention that the terrorists were cold-hearted? Right. Vantage Point’s trio of film editors (Stuart Baird Sigvaldi J. Karason Valdis Oskarsdottir) must have either thought they’d died and gone to heaven or hell depending on how much of a pain it was to cut the film. Whatever the scenario together with newbie director Peter Travis they keep the action taut and suspenseful. Each character’s POV lends itself to more information as the plot unfolds piece by piece culminating with a whopper of a car-chase scene that should leave you clenching your teeth. The use of electronic devices in the attack is also noteworthy as the main terrorist basically accesses his PDA to 1) shoot the president 2) explode bombs and 3) send the pictures of the destruction to all his friends. OK he actually doesn’t do that last part but he certainly could with that handy device of his. The only drawback to the whole scenario is the implausibility of it all--and the lack of back story. Suspending disbelief we can do but in Vantage Point’s case a little explaining would have helped.
Set during the Spanish Civil War of the 1940s—a favorite area of exploration for writer-director Guillermo del Toro—the story follows dreamy 11-year-old Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) as she’s uprooted and relocated to a remote military outpost when her sickly mother (Ariadna Gil) marries the wantonly cruel camp commander Captain Vidal (Sergei Lopez). With the compassionate but secretive housekeeper Mercedes (Maribel Verdu) as the closest thing to a friend she has in the oppressive environment Ofelia escapes into a richly textured fantasy world. She follows a dragonfly she believes is a fairy into a landscaped but neglected garden maze she recasts as the lair of the goatish godling Pan (Doug Jones). He tells her she’s the last heir to a magical otherworldly kingdom and charges her with several tasks to help her reclaim her birthright. As her personal world grows more and more grim—the impending birth of her half-brother threatens her mother’s health her step-father grows colder and colder in his bid to crush the resistance and Mercedes’ hidden agenda places her in jeopardy as well—Ofelia soon finds herself tangling with hideous monsters both imagined and all too real often having difficulty distinguishing which is the more dangerous. The astonishingly real performance of the amazing young Spanish actress Baquero as Ofelia anchors the film firmly in both its real world and fantasy environments as only the convincing imagination of a child could. Lopez is an equally compelling discovery as the callous Vidal pitiless vicious and malevolent while still remaining believably human throughout. He’s unblinking in his depiction of a thoroughly vile and cruel man but avoids any aspect of cartoonish evil. And Verdu (Y Tu Mama Tambien) as Mercedes is a wonder as well with her remarkably expressive face unlimited by the film’s Spanish language barriers. Kudos too to Doug Jones a whisper-thin actor who specializes in “creature” roles (he’s played Abe Sapien in del Toro’s Hellboy and will be the Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four sequel) who somehow magically delivers fully-formed performances as both the faun Pan and the freakish Pale Man through layers and layers of latex. Pan's Labyrinth is unquestionably Guillermo del Toro’s finest film work to date as pure an artistic vision as is likely to be committed to celluloid. He wisely worked outside the Hollywood system in his native Spain to bring his dark tale to life. The story exists in that shadowy netherworld between childhood and adulthood innocence and awareness of the world’s more sinister nature and its characters and themes are explored in ways that no mainstream film would ever allow. On the surface the trappings are Tim Burton-esque but the dark corners Pan's Labyrinth peers into are grim and gloomy indeed; del Toro is never afraid to delve into the murkiest of directions that to audiences used to more conventional movies are heart-wrenching even gut-churning but ultimately emotionally honest and in unexpected ways as immensely satisfying as they are haunting. The film is the announcement of the complete arrival of a major filmmaker and we can only hope that the qualities del Toro brings to this work do not get lost in the maze of Hollywood for future films.
Victor Rosa (John Leguizamo) is a Latino drug dealer from the East Bronx and a very good businessman in his way. He knows that money is master and he's got a lot of it--about $4 million liquid cash stored at the apartments of various downtrodden acquaintances whose rent he pays in exchange for the favor. Aside from occasional bloodshed life is good but when Victor's girlfriend Carmen (Delilah Cotto) gets pregnant he decides to go legit and his remarkable street savvy means very little in the face of so-called legitimate business. He's incredibly naïve and the mistakes he makes along the way cost him dearly. First he teams up with Carmen's friend Trish's (Denise Richards) boyfriend Jack (Peter Sarsgaard) an investment banker--mistake number one. Then because drug dealing isn't an easy profession to phase oneself out of Victor cuts a deal with his boss La Colombiana (Isabella Rossellini) promising her a 500 percent return on a $1.5 million investment if she lets him out of his territory unscathed. That was mistake number two as Victor discovers when Jack turns out to be significantly less legit than he seems (see mistake number one). Of course the whole point of this mess is that you can't tell the good guys from the bad just by looking at them especially if they're all pretty much bad to the bone.
Leguizamo a Colombian-born New York-based actor known since 1995's House of Buggin' for his biting standup comedy and satirical bent attempts to prove in Empire that he can still hold his own in a dramatic role. While he makes a valiant effort Empire is not a film that showcases his dramatic talents to their best effect. If we were to take each scene as an individual vignette it would have to be said that the cast plays them at least passably and sometimes exceptionally well. But a film is more than a series of scenes strung together. In Empire the actions and emotions the characters display in one scene are often completely unconnected to the actions and emotions they display in the next which results in a sad lack of continuity and motivation that must be blamed less on the actors and more on the script and the direction. You know something's wrong when the actors who come off best are the ones with the most one-dimensional characters: in this case Richards as Carmen's two-faced friend Rossellini as the hard-hearted drug queenpin and Sarsgaard as the slick investment banker.
That brings us to the directing issue. Empire written and directed by Franc. Reyes is a film with something to say about the urban Latino culture and community a group of people who get very little chance in the mainstream American media to say much of anything. He should be commended for that. It's unfortunate however that he uses every played-out trick in the urban-cinema book to get his message across. From casting rappers (Fat Joe and Treach from Naughty by Nature) to draw in the crowds to shooting drug deals and fight sequences with jerky handheld cameras to wallowing in creepy slow-motion funeral scenes Empire doesn't bring anything new to the bad-drug-dealer-tries-to-go-good plotline except perhaps an uninspired--if seldom used--punch line best encapsulated by Fat Joe who attended the screening Hollywood.com attended and had this to say to the crowd in the theater "Don't be fooled by the shoot 'em up bang bang…if you use drugs or sell drugs…you're gonna die."