Monday, June 14, 2010

Zaki's Review: The A-Team

At one point during The A-Team, director Joe Carnahan's unquestionably dumb, undeniably fun redo of the seminal '80s adventure series, the titular team is stuck in a tank that's plummeting out of the sky toward the ground and certain doom. Spotting a nearby lake, their leader, Col. John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson), orders the turret angled and several volleys fired. Before you know it, they've nudged the tank over in mid-air, and "flown" it over to the lake. Splash.

If that description fails to elicit even a half-smile from you, then you can pretty much guess where you fit as far as this film's intended audience.


For most folks of my vintage, the A-Team TV series was something you couldn’t pass through the gauntlet of adolescence without, if not experiencing, at least being exposed to it. Call it a rite of passage. And yet, re-watching the show recently as an adult in the post-DVD age, I came to the unfortunate realization that it hadn’t aged nearly as well as (ahem) I had. Seeing the rote repetition of cartoon stories and sub-cartoon violence, my pleasant memories and the unpleasant reality had a headlong collision like something out of, well, The A-Team.

Thus, when I saw the first teaser for the feature version earlier this year, I noted with surprise that it managed perfectly to evoke my memories of the show irrespective of what it was actually like. Having now seen the movie in its entirety, I can safely -- and very happily -- say that my initial observation was borne out. Carnahan (who earned my admiration years ago with the underrated Narc) has created a 2010 model A-Team that retains the charm, humor, and chemistry of the show (i.e. the good stuff) while retrofitting the action, set pieces, and story (i.e. the bad stuff) for today's audiences.

The plot, familiar to anyone who followed the series during its 1983-1987 run (or at least caught the opening credits), has a crack commando unit -- Neeson's Smith, Bradley Cooper as Lt. Templeton "Faceman" Peck, Sharlto Copley as Capt. "Howling Mad" Murdock, and Quinton Jackson as Sgt. Bosco "B.A." Baracus -- escaping from military custody to clear their names after being framed for treason and murder. The ensuing caper involves stolen plates of US currency, mad dashes across several continents, showdowns with several government agencies, and a climactic shell game that plays out on a shipping dock with freight containers.

Oh, and there are explosions. Lots and lots of explosions. After all, as Hannibal helpfully reminds us, "Overkill is underrated."

Headed ably by the always-reliable Neeson (who by this point has played the wise leader-type so often that he must get some kind of a "Hollywood Father Figure" discount card), the cast do a remarkable job of impersonating the original Teamsters (George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz and, of course, Mr. T) while imbuing what are fairly one-note characters with some personality (though not too much, mind you).

Copley, in his first mainstream role after breaking through in last year’s sublime District 9, is clearly having a heck of a time playing crazy-like-a-fox Murdock, while Jackson, who earned his nickname "Rampage" on the UFC circuit, does a credible job of occupying T’s not-inconsiderable Mohawk. Probably the most thankless role in this whole testosterone-fest is Jessica Biel’s Capt. Sosa, ostensibly tasked with bringing the team to justice, but mainly slotted in to fill the cast's requisite female quota, right down to the tacked-on romantic history with Cooper's Faceman.

The script by Carnahan & Brian Bloom (who does double-duty as one of the film’s baddies) along with co-scenarist Skip Woods (who, based on his involvement in last year’s double-whammy of Wolverine and G.I. Joe, must have been out of the room when most of the important decisions were made) is utterly preposterous, yet it knows when to treat the source material with due deference and when to wink at both it and the audience. In that sense, the movie that repeatedly came to mind by way of contrast was 1996's Mission: Impossible.

Like The A-Team, that one also revived a familiar TV brand for the big screen but, unlike The A-Team, it started things off by first shooting a harpoon through the heart of the show that inspired it. While the Mission: Impossible franchise took three tries to finally get it right (with JJ Abrams' M:I-III, which, ironically, Carnahan was at one point attached to direct), this one manages right out the gate to thread that needle between fealty and farce. Other than last year’s Star Trek and perhaps The Fugitive from ’93, I’m hard-pressed to think of a TV-to-film translation that steps as assuredly or reinvents itself as skillfully.

I love it when…well, you know. B+

(And just as an FYI for the longtime fans, you'd be well-advised to stay in your seat through the end credits.)

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