The Men on a Mission movie is big business this year with the big screen adaptation of the ultimate 80s property The A-Team rubbing musclebound shoulders with another nostalgia tinged action epic The Expendables, and this film, while it has the luxury of hitting our cinema first, needs to establish an identity of its own in order to offer up something other than playground quips and a succession of explosions.

The comic book roots of this film are evident in the standard character intros (including the time honoured freeze frame/slam/superimposed character name tack) and the bullet ballets with their sudden super slo-mo death scenes, and fans of the comic book will enjoy seeing some of the more stylised set pieces faithfully portrayed on screen. But we’re post Kick-Ass, and more imagination is needed to engage the audience and while the film offered plenty of style it suffers from a critical lack of substance.

Director Sylvain White knows when to adhere closely to the panels of the comic, and some of the scenes could have been storyboarded from the original from writer Andy Diggle and illustrator Jock, but White also allows the panel frames to be pushed a little wider and some of the more outlandish set pieces are given extra scope on screen.

Comparing this to something like 300, where the framing was sometimes a celluloid copy of the artwork, and also Watchmen, whose adherence to the source material was something of a sticking point for a lot of critics, The Losers does feel episodic and formulaic, just as the comic book did, but the same two things save it on the big screen.

The set pieces are fun to watch, and the first scene has a particularly nasty conclusion which I wasn’t expecting, and the various missions to recover/steal some very important plot device play out like Mission Impossible as commanded by Danny Ocean; the banter is frantic and fun, the gadgets look geeky, plenty of lock and load and gunplay ahoy. But it’s hard to engage in a film that seems so determined to impress with its hardware that it leaves the characters strewn across the screen hanging onto their sole trait (distrustful, vengeful, homesick, court jester, etc) like shadows in the light of the explosions they cause.

Never at any point of the film do we think our band of Losers will fail, and it becomes all about sitting back and enduring/enjoying the ride. Note that this does not mean ‘turning your brain off’ (seriously – you’d be dead), but more seeing the film for what it is: a series of explosions and fights with a lacing of plot to keep the momentum on some sort of track. It does what it sets out to do very well, and it’s a flashy spectacle which will play very well to those who can’t wait for The A-Team to come rolling around. I enjoyed the film while hating some parts of it intensely, and on further thought concluded that I was thinking about it all too much. It’s a ride, and you know what you’re in for within the first few minutes.

What is likely to endear you to the film far more than the plot is the cast. Virtually everyone in the film is seemingly perfect for their respective roles, with Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Idris Elba making great hay with their antagonistic relationship and Elba in particular really yanking his dialogue from the realms of cliche to be an effective, ambiguous presence. Zoe Saldana gets to look good and fire bazookas, sadly not much more than that, while Captain America himself Chris Evans plays a very familiar character in the role of jokey Jensen. I had a huge problem with White’s camera zooming in on Saldana mid-fight crawling away from her assailant on all fours – seriously, that’s Michael Bay tacky, and may prove problematic for some as it is indicative of a brief, very lazy misogyny.

Standouts for me though are Columbus Short as Pooch (with his miraculous Wolverine like powers of recovery – you’ll see what I mean), and having only seen Short in the Aaron Sorkin show Studio 60 it was great to see him here, and Oscar Jaenada as the taciturn sniper Cougar are great fun. To be clear there’s nothing much here in terms of character development, and certainly nothing to surprise, but everyone plays their part perfectly and The Losers needs them to elevate it above the ordinary.

The film has great style and a relentless pace which threatens to leave the casual viewer behind, conversely there’s not a huge amount to pay attention to in the way of plot deviations and the twists, when they come, are no surprise and have little impact on the outcome of the film at journey’s end. At one point the team implodes and characters are cut loose or leave, only to reappear like Han Solo at the end of Star Wars (only with a bazooka the size of a vaulting pole) to help out at just the right moment. At least the script is aware enough to have lines such as “I’m the black MacGuyver!” in it, and the film does well in keeping just one step removed from the cliches of its influences.

The Losers follows Kick-Ass into the cinemas by a matter of weeks, and is certainly nowhere near as good, subversive or as much fun. Where it deviates is clear though, and it is all a matter of consequence. In Kick-Ass the violence hurts, and bringing superhero sensibilites into the real world has a logical, visceral consequence. In The Losers though it is one outrageous set piece after another enacted in a strange violent bubble where city streets play mute witness to ridiculous firestorms of gunfire and bomb blasts; it is a self aware portfolio of violent espionage and vengeance whose initial serious and horrific incident is thrown away in favour of casual gunplay and lighthearted death dealing.