The weather is getting warmer, which means it must be time for some movies about BLOWING STUFF UP!
And so we have “The Losers,” based on a comic book originally set in WWII but updated by Andy Diggle. The name originally signified that they were all officers who had lost men in the war, but now it means they’re the usual motley crew of lovable rag-tag tough guys as quick with a quip as they are with the various mechanisms they have for creating mayhem, and almost as quick as they are to come to each other’s aid or defy authority. These guys are the fists and fury equivalent of a boy band, each member with his own adorable quirks, awesome proficiency, and cool call sign name that makes them sound like extras from “Top Gun.” And there’s just enough variation among them that you can pick your own favorite. There’s the sharpshooter who’s silent, but deadly (Ã“scar Jaenada as Cougar). There’s the scary-looking guy with the scar who seems to have a rather short fuse (Idris Elba as Roque). There’s the cute computer whiz with a taste for whimsical t-shirts (Chris Evans as Jensen). There’s the sweetheart family man who can master any known vehicle on land, sea, or air (Columbus Short as Pooch). And big daddy, the mastermind (Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Clay).
It’s sort of “Mission Impossible” and “The Three Musketeers” crossed with “The A-Team.” There’s the sniper, the weapons expert, the techie, the transportation guy, and the leader. They got mad skillz so they are only brought in on the blackest of black ops, so secret it’s amazing even they know who they are.
We meet them in Bolivia, where they are on a mission to tag the hideout of a drug dealer so that it can be air-bombed, under the direction of a Charlie of Charlie’s Angels mysterioso they’ve never seen named Max. But when they see that the dealer is using children as mules to transport the drugs it turns out the big old tough guys are also big old softies. Can our hardy little team fight off a zillion Bolivian bad guys with AK-47s and rescue 25 cute little kids, one with a teddy bear (presumably not being used as a place to hide cocaine)? As a former Vice Presidential candidate might say, “You betcha!”
But it’s a set-up. Things go terribly wrong and The Losers are framed and believed killed. When a mysterious woman named Aisha (“Avatar’s” Zoe Saldana) offers to get them back to the US if they will help her go after Max, they agree.
The Losers have brash, raffish charm, the action scenes are well-staged, the explosions are really big, the bad guy (Jason Patric) is entertainingly twisted, and nobody takes themselves too seriously. Pass the popcorn!
The fierce determination. The big break. The tyrannical and sometimes unreasonable and sometimes even crooked manager. The endless rehearsals. The performances in dingy clubs. The breakthrough. The first album. The first magazine cover. The first fans. The fights among band members and between band members and their families.
And then, inevitably, the nightmare descent into booze and drugs.
That’s just about every single episode of “VH1 Behind the Music,” because it’s just about every rock band’s real-life experience. But the very success of that series has made it extremely difficult to make a movie about a real-life rock band that does not seem strangled by the constricting inevitabilities of the rock star story arc — as numbingly familiar in movies as it is in real life.
All of that is in “The Runaways,” the story of the pioneering all-girl rock group of the 1970’s. Joan Jett (“Twilight’s” Kristen Stewart) is the one with the fierce determination, especially when a guitar teacher suggests that girls don’t rock. She wants to have an all-girl band. Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) is the perfect storm to be out front — she is very pretty, just past puberty, and has a home life so awful that she will do anything for attention and affection. When a music promoter named Kim Fowley brings them together, he tells the teenage girls (in a much cruder way) that they should rock like men.
They were one part female empowerment, one part novelty act. They were Lolitas with a backbeat, jail bait in jumpsuits, their very name emphasizing their youth and rebelliousness. And they really did not have much in common other than a lack of experience and maturity and a longing for thrills. Jett, who went on to a long rock career and is still performing, was a serious rocker. Currie, who was barely old enough to drive when The Runaways were singing “Cherry Bomb” in lingerie to packed concert halls, had no great passion for performing. It is telling that in an early scene we see her at a school talent show — lip-synching David Bowie. It is her memoir that is the basis of the movie, and so it reflects her perspective and her story. She was torn apart by family problems and soon became addicted to drugs.
If you have some affection for the 1980’s-era buddy cop movies (the “Lethal Weapon” series, “Running Scared,” “48 Hours,” etc.), rent one of those. Don’t try to re-create the genre by seeing Kevin Smith’s tired re-tread, “Cop Out,” starring Bruce Willis and Tracey Morgan. This is the first film Smith has directed without writing, and once again the suits got it backward. Kevin Smith can write, but he has never been much of a director. Remember his first film, “Clerks?” He basically set up the camera in one position and let the characters talk for 92 minutes. And it was that talk — the relishing of banality, the tsunami of TMI — that made the movie successful.
The check-list items are here. It begins with our not-so-lovably bickering heroes getting into trouble, being chewed out by a choleric police chief and dissed by a higher-ranking team (Kevin Pollack and Adam Brody). Denuded of guns and badges, they still have to figure out a way to save the day not just in locking up (or, mostly, shooting down) the bad guys but also in resolving their personal problems. Jimmy (Willis) has to figure out a way to pay for his daughter’s $50,000 wedding and Paul (Morgan) is hyper-jealous and has installed a nanny-cam in a teddy bear to find out whether his pretty wife (Rashida Jones) is cheating on him. Of course they run into an obnoxious small-time crook who will help them catch the bigger crooks (the Joe Pesci role — with a bit of Jason Mewes — goes to Seann William Scott). They are constantly nattering at each other but always having each other’s backs. And they mess everything up, in many different locations, until they don’t.
On the meandering way to the conclusion, we also see ambitious Mexican drug-dealers, a foul-mouthed kid, a valuable collectible, and a beautiful woman who has been in the trunk of a car for two days, as she repeatedly reminds everyone.
Willis looks like he is just running out the clock until his next project. Morgan and Scott try their best to stay afloat and there are some inspired improvisational riffs, but the script and direction keep getting in their way. The bad guys don’t do much but squint and call everyone “homes” all the time. Smith brought in Harold Faltermeyer, composer of the unforgettable “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack (he also provided the music for “Fletch” and “Top Gun”), occasionally amusing but mostly just pointlessly retro. And the movie perpetuates the least appealing element of its predecessors by giving its female characters nothing to do. Michelle Trachtenberg looks goth-pale and scary-thin as Jimmy’s daughter, Jones feeds Morgan straight lines and looks very pretty as Paul’s wife, and Ana de la Reguera is stuck in a typical spitfire (with real spit) role. Only Susie Essman (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) is able to make the most of her brief appearance as a pistol-packing homeowner.
Smith, smarting after a couple of failures, decided to play safe with a studio movie when what he needs to be doing is to stop putting all of his creative energy into funny tweets and go back to writing scripts with heart and humor and memorable characters. Anything else is a cop out.
Two things I can’t resist — Helen Mirren taking down bad guys and movies where someone says, “We’re getting the band back together.”