Sunday, March 20, 2011

The A-Team

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Quinton Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Jessica Biel, Patrick Wilson, Brian Bloom
Running Time: 119 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Forget about whether the big screen re-boot of the popular 80's action series The A-Team is faithful to the spirit of the original because even judged solely on its own terms as silly action junk it's still a mess. As one of the more worthwhile remake ideas to come a long recently, there was actually potential to greatly improve the material by shifting it to the present day. With the right direction you could easily envision a modern day update of The A-Team being a huge success but unfortunately for every one thing that does work, about three don't. While certain elements in terms of feel and casting are spot-on, a ridiculously convoluted plot and cringe inducing dialogue make the overlong film somewhat embarrassing to sit through at times. But the biggest problem is tone. No one seems exactly sure what they're trying to make. It's Bad Boys meets The Expendables, though slightly less painful than either. When it was released a few months ago Mr. T. came out criticizing the film for its excessive sex and violence, which is funny considering there isn't much, and even if there was, that would be the least of its troubles.

The film's most clever bit is out of the way early in an entertaining twenty-minute prologue that introduces the four army rangers who together will form the elite Special Forces unit known as The A-Team, led by cranky, cigar chomping Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson). He's joined by mohawked muscle man B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson"), cocky womanizer Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper) and a mentally unstable, but brilliant helicopter pilot known as H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdoch (Sharlto Copley). Eight Years and "eighty successful missions later" while stationed in Iraq, they're dishonorably discharged and sent to prison after being framed for stealing counterfeit engraving plates. With the help of shady CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) they escape but must evade capture from Face's former lover, Captain Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel) and track down a rogue security agent named Pike (Brian Bloom). The rest of the plot, full of double-crosses, illogical turns and centering around some kind massive conspiracy involving the guy who played Major Dad I probably wouldn't be able to pass a quiz on. It's all just an excuse to blow things up and stage giant action sequences that are difficult to follow.

Not to compare, but an advantage the original series will always have over any current big screen adaptation is a lack of technology. It's strange referring to that as an advantage but an overuse of computer generated effects isn't something that necessarily benefits a no nonsense, balls-to-the-wall property like The A-Team. The explosions and action sequences on that show looked real because they actually were and it gave the show a realistic charm. Even when action scenes were sloppy, they were at least believably sloppy, so if any action movie needed to be scaled down on CGI for a reason it was this. Instead, director/co-writer Joe Carnahan bombards us with as much action effects as possible, as well as music video style cutting quick enough to make following anything near impossible. That approach worked for him in Smokin' Aces because you couldn't envision a movie that bombastic being made any other way but here it just doesn't suit the material, with a script alternates randomly between cheesy one-liners and semi-seriousness. It's not necessarily all his fault so much as the wrong take on the material being chosen from the get-go before cameras started rolling. More shameful is composer Alan Silvestri giving only a brief, passing shout-out to the original show's legendary theme music in his score. If you have one of the most recognizable TV themes of all-time at your disposable, wouldn't it make sense to use it?  Then again, when you consider the film made such an effort to stray from what made the the original series successful, that decision comes as little surprise.

The actors' takes on these classic television characters vary in effectiveness with Liam Neeson playing Liam Neeson playing George Peppard playing Hannibal Smith. In the minds of some Neeson's been "selling out" recently with these types of roles but very few have managed to do it with more dignity and he walks away with it still intact after this. While lacking Peppard's gruff ruggedness, he gets the job done in a performance that doesn't mimic the original actor but won't be remembered as anything special. With as much screen time to be considered co-lead, Bradley Cooper goes through the entire film looking like he's still nursing his hangover from The Hangover, merely transporting that character with the macho factor upped slightly. For some reason I found him very irritating, which may have more to do with the corny dialogue he's asked to deliver than any particular problem with the performance. In any event, Face quickly becomes tiresome and unlikable, hitting the same note for two hours straight. Despite really looking the part, Mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson shouldn't quit his day job, failing to come across as even the slightest bit intimidating or charismatic as Baracus. That his character's relegated to the sidelines and basically a non-factor in the action doesn't help much either. Jackson shouldn't be expected to do an imitation of Mr. T (who you may have a new appreciation for after watching this) but he should be expected to do something. Of the four, Sharlto Copley comes closest to capturing the spirit of Murdoch but even that character seems like some kind of crazy parody whether you've seen the show or not. Jessica Biel and Patrick Wilson are more entertaining than all of them, especially Biel who surprisingly gives the best performance in the film, completely believable as an authoritative military captain capable of taking out The A-Team.

Viewing it through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, I don't remember the show being this goofy, not that it should matter any because it was probably even goofier. It was never a drama either but the biggest problem with this adaptation is its misguided desire to be both. Action comedies are tough to make well anyway, but when you pile on the added pressure of drawing new fans to a long defunct franchise and attempting to stay true to its original roots, it becomes even harder. This strays too far from the original to entice longtime fans and remains too faithful to attract any new ones, making the common mistake of modernizing too much in an attempt to fix what wasn't broken. To paraphrase Hannibal, this plan doesn't come together like it should. Though fans would also likely consider it a betrayal, a more serious take on the material could have been compelling in the right hands, but that would have been a long shot as well. 2006's polarizing Miami Vice adaptation was a messy misfire but at least Michael Mann had the guts to force us to think of that property in a way we never considered before. Whatever incarnation of The A-Team this was supposed to be it doesn't click, but the most disappointing aspect is how a show that deserved more comes off so closely resembling every other sub-par action movie released these days.

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