Director : Joe Carnahan
Screenplay : Joe Carnahan & Brian Bloom and Skip Woods (based on the television series created by Frank Lupo & Stephen J. Cannel)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2010
Stars : Liam Neeson (Col. John “Hannibal” Smith), Bradley Cooper (Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck), Jessica Biel (Charisa Sosa), Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (B.A. Baracus), Sharlto Copley (Murdock), Patrick Wilson (Lynch), Gerald McRaney (General Morrison), Henry Czerny (Director McCready), Yul Vazquez (General Javier Tuco), Brian Bloom (Pike), Maury Sterling (Gammons), Terry Chen (Ravech), Omari Hardwick (Chopshop Jay), David Hugghins (Oskar Shunt), Jacob Blair (Agent Blair)
When summer movies go bad--as last summer’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen did with such sledgehammer sound and fury--it can be the kind of experience that makes you regret the medium itself. When summer movies hit on all cylinders--as The Dark Knight (2008) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) did the previous two summers--they remind us of how transcendence is always possible in any genre if the right artists are allowed to do what they do best. Joe Carnahan’s big-screen rehashing of the cheesy Reagan-era action TV series The A-Team, however, is something different altogether: Mediocrity as an artform. Neither terrible nor anywhere close to good, its perpetual state of ehh provides a blueprint of Hollywood moviemaking at its least inspired.
First is the general lack of originality: While so many interesting scripts languish in developmental purgatory or, worse, never get read, studios are more than happy to pour millions and millions of dollars into updated variations of old properties whose only real virtue is that their familiarity means they are “pre-sold.” Surely no one really seriously thought that the world needed a souped-up cinematic version of Frank Lupo and Stephen J. Cannel’s television series, which went off the air back in 1987, about a group of ace commandos-turned-soldiers of fortune whose primary cultural impact was extending Mr. T’s moment in the spotlight beyond his turn as Clubber Lang in Rocky III (1983). Yet, because so many other television shows of recent decades have made the leap to the big screen, with mostly dismal results (Bewitched, The Dukes of Hazzard, Land of the Lost, Starsky & Hutch, The Saint, Lost in Space--need I go on?), studio executives are willing to roll the dice and invest the dough.
Second is casting versus characters: The A-Team is headlined by a group of diverse and interesting actors, including Oscar nominee Liam Neeson, current hunk-of-the-month Bradley Cooper, and unlikely District 9 star Sharlto Copley, yet Carnahan and his co-writers Brian Bloom (who also plays the villainous Pike) and Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) don’t give them characters worth investing in. Like the professionals they are, the actors gamely go through the expected motions--silver-haired Neeson chomps on cigars with authority, Cooper exudes a brash sense of ego-fueled recklessness, and Copley plays borderline psychosis as comic relief--but it comes across as playacting with no real integrity. It works in the most basic cartoonish sense, but nothing more. Mixed martial arts champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson does an admirable job filling Mr. T’s shoes (albeit sans feathers and massive gold chains), if by admirable we mean he manages to belt the world “fool” several times and come close to owning it, rather than just doing a Mr. T impression. The rest of the cast, including Jessica Biel as an army intelligence officer who used to be involved with Cooper and Patrick Wilson as a smarmy CIA agent, just seem lost.
Third is the ascendance of special effects and hyperbolic editing at the expense of coherence, elegance, and excitement. The A-Team is loaded wall-to-wall with large-scale action setpieces, from an opening rescue mission in the Mexican desert, to a climactic showdown in the Los Angeles harbor that gives us an entire freighter toppling over and exploding. In the meantime we get helicopter chases, Humvees driving through cinderblock walls, deafening gunfights, and a wild chase after an 18-wheeler in the streets of Bagdad, but they’re all interchangeable, hyper-fragmented whirls of color and motion (the only exception is a sequence in which several character fast-rope down the side of a glass skyscraper, which actually, conveys a vertiginous sense of speed and danger, perhaps because it includes several shots that last longer than a second). The intensity of the action is undeniable, but it’s also deadening because it doesn’t carry a real charge. It’s all a cartoon, which I am sure is the filmmakers’ first defense, but it’s a weak one because good cartoons make us care about what’s happening, ridiculous as it may be, or at least encourages us to laugh at it.
Which brings us to the fourth problem: tone. Simply put, The A-Team never really develops one, or at least a consistent one. We’re never sure if it’s serious or tongue-in-cheek; the source material almost demands that the film be presented comically, but at the same time too much money has been poured into the mayhem to just toss it all off as a big joke. So, we get an uneasy mixture of the two that comes across as defensive: The movie is built to be excused as a joke when it’s absurd but then congratulated for its infusion of socio-political ugliness (CIA malfeasance, the withdrawal from Iraq, etc.) if and when it works.
Of course, to anyone who spends an appreciable amount of time at the movies during the summer season, this is all old news and probably evinces little more than a shrug of the shoulders, and I can’t really blame them. What is most unfortunate about The A-Team is not that it’s terrible, but that it’s criminally unmemorable. Director Joe Carnahan, who showed great promise with 2002’s Narc and was at one point prepared to take over Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible series (one of the few successful leaps from the small to the big screen, mostly due to the unique artistry of its directors Brian De Palma, John Woo, and J.J. Abrams), works hard to give the audience what he must think they want, but there’s no passion, no daring, no real peril. The A-Team never takes any genuine risks, and as a result it’s a dud, a movie that tears up the screen trying to please you but ends up just rattling your gray matter and then disappearing from memory.
Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick
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