A film review by Craig J. Koban June 18, 2010

THE A-TEAM j
j
½ 

2010, PG-13, 121 mins.

 

Hannibal: Liam Neeson / Charisa: Jessica Biel / Face: Bradley Cooper / Murdock: Sharlto Copley / B.A.: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson / Lynch: Patrick Wilson

Directed by Joe Carnahan / Written by Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods / Based on the TV series by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo.

The Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo created A-TEAM TV series was just the right type of enjoyable diversion for the naïve and misguided 8-year-old that I was when it premiered in 1983.  

Man, I thought it was the finest hour on the tube for its time…at least I kept telling myself that until I matured, grew up, and learned from the mistakes of my youthful ignorance.  For its 98 episodes THE A-TEAM provided non-stop action thrills and chronicled an ex-US Special Forces Unit that was accused of a crime they did not commit.  Because of this, they became soldiers of fortune that worked on the side of the good and oppressed when they required help.  Jam packed with cartoony storylines, bizarrely over-the-top – for its time – for its gratuitous violence (which, I remember, never, ever involved people dying or massive bloodshed), and a never-look-back militaristic attitude, this series was the ultimate junk food for a child craving for a weekly sugar fix. 

The show unavoidably became a cult hit and remains known to this day as an indelible part of TV pop culture for a generation of fans.  A major motion picture update of the show seemed inevitable, and it’s kind of surprising to see it take this long for writer/director Joe Carnahan to assemble a joyous homage to the superficial, testosterone-hemorrhaging spirit of the show.  Perhaps one of the finest compliments I will pay towards this big budgeted re-imagining of the 80’s show is that it does manage to show affection for the source material in just the right areas.  Taking the cheeseball commando schlock essence of the series and morphing it into a modern day action thriller with a serious tone would have been a miscalculation:  Thankfully, Carnahan and company stay quite faithful to the consequence-free violence and the brainless, low calorie action intrigue of its antecedent.  This may sound a bit weird, but the film is just as shallow, empty, and silly as its small screen predecessor…and that’s no insult.

The ultimate problem I have with the film is not so much with its underlining tone and sense of faithfulness, but with its execution of other things, like a workable narrative, individual scenes and moments that strain credulity to unpardonable levels, and an overall aesthetic style employed by Carnahan to make most of the stunts and action nearly incomprehensible.  An A-TEAM film needs to be lean, mean, and simple in execution and delivery:  the way Carnahan lets his nerve-wracking predilection towards using frantic, headache-inducing queasy-cam movements and seizure-inducing editing overwhelms the film, not to mention that he employs an annoying usage of some very obvious CGI effects that drain out the suspense.  It’s one thing to appease the sensibilities of a preposterous, unwaveringly gung-ho, and macho-centric action series, but the unmitigated orgy of pixalized mayhem and attention-deficit direction here almost seems disingenuous to the B-grade appeal of the show.   

Bigger, broader, noisier, and busier is definitely not a good thing here. 

The film at least does a fairly decent job as an “origin” story explaining how this crack squad of mercenaries became the "Alpha Team" we all know and love.  Despite an overall plot that never seems to gel with any coherence, the film does provide a good backdrop as to how the team members came in contact with one another and joined forces.  Subtle changes were obviously made here to make this A-Team digestible for modern audiences: For example, the team members are no longer Vietnam war vets, but participants in recent Middle East conflicts.  The overall character dynamics and personalities are still abundantly here, and the team does indeed find themselves trapped within a conspiracy that imprisons them for crimes they did not commit.  They also - like their TV counterparts - escape military custody and become the hero-for-hire squad that is now famous.   

The team is comprised of four characters that will, no doubt, be very familiar to fans.  We have the tough as nails and always prepared leader, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson); the Mohawked, muscle bound monster named B.A Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) who does not like flying; the cocky, womanizing, but gun loving Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper); and finally the proverbial loose canon of the pack, "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley), a brilliant aviator that’s completely deranged.  They start off as an elite military unit in Iraq near the beginning of the film, but are then framed for stealing counterfeit engraving plates and are abruptly sent to prison (dubiously, their CO that gave them orders – and could clear their names – was mysteriously murdered).   

As the plot unravels, an arrogant and semi-untrustworthy CIA stooge named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) assists the men with escaping their prisons after which they attempt to clear their names and find those responsible for framing them.  This is made all the more troubling because a former flame of Face's, Lieutenant Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel) is hungry to track down and apprehend them while trying to find a deep undercover operative named Pike (Brain Bloom) that has his hands very dirty in the plot that imprisoned her prey. 

I believe that one of the hardest aspects of making this film was, no doubt, casting actors to play TV roles that many find iconic.  Thankfully, Carnahan has cast his film uniformly well and the group manages to forge a great deal of headstronh camaraderie.  Liam Neeson seems like such an obvious choice in the role George Peppard made famous, and, as expected, he brings the right dosage of his stern, gravel voiced gravitas, non-nonsense toughness and credibility to his role as the leader.  Bradley Cooper also has the sculpted features, the pretty boy façade, and the hotshot temperament to make his ladies-man/grunt believable as well.   

Quinton Jackson perhaps has the hardest job, trying to fill the shoes of a role that Mr. T. made legendary, and what he does here is kind of sly: he sort of mimes Mr. T’s action figure posturing and angry, hostile one-liners and threats with a gnarly tenacity without making his performance coming off as weak impersonation (Jackson may be a mixed martial artist first and an actor second, but the role of Baracus never required a master thespian).  The most inspired casting of the bunch would have to be Sharlto Copley as Murdoch (remember how deliriously oddball and demented he was in in DISTRICT 9?) who seems to naturally channel his role's required maniacal energy.  Copley is one of those rare actors that can merge a childlike sincerity and fearless lunacy with relative ease.  He’s an unmitigated riot here: watch for one howl inducing moment when he impersonates Mel Gibson as Braveheart or another hilarious instance when – while flying a helicopter – he screams, “Hang on…I wanna try something I saw in a cartoon once!” 

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag:  Patrick Wilson - one of our most underrated actors - does a thanklessly decent job of making his CIA operative one of duplicitous motives and unsavory charisma.  Jessica Biel, on the other hand, is hopelessly miscast here and, to be blunt, is never once credible as her military officer.  She, more or less, looks too much like she just stepped off of the pages of Vogue than she has off of a military base.  That, and she utters such groan-inducing lines like “They are the best and they specialize in the ridiculous.”  Yikes. 

Then there are the issues with the film’s plot (a term I would aptly use very loosely) that never really develops with a lucidity or sense of consistent momentum.  Of course, the film is an exercise in wanton PG-13 carnage and turmoil than it is in well established storytelling.  Now, I am all for films that strain credulity, but some moments in THE A-TEAM were really difficult to swallow: For instance, consider a scene where the heroes plummet out of a Lockheed Hercules plane while in a tank that has parachutes attached to it.  The tank is speeding to the ground, but Hannibal implausibly deduces that he can slow the momentum of its fall with some precise shooting off of the tanks rounds, which causes the tank to “fly” (no one reminded him of Newton’s laws, I guess).  Yup.  Sure.  Uh-huh.  Then there is the big climax of the film that really twists believability: I won’t say much, other that to say that it involves, in random order, mistaken identity, rockets, multiple cargo ship containers, cell phone calls, a melted Kevlar helmet, elaborate diversions, and one of those most terribly convenient reveals ever in an action film that could have never been as precisely timed as presented here.  I know Hannibal loves it when a plan comes together, but this one would have left Houdini scratching his head. 

Yes…yes…I know…this is an A-TEAM movie…not the work of Tolstoy.  To be very fair, the film is sort of innocuously enjoyable and campy and the cast here is very game and work very well off of one another (Neeson and Copley in particular lend a lot of class to the proceedings and anchor in the rest of the actors).  I just wish that Carnahan (a gifted writer/director, see NARC) could have reigned in the visual and stylistic overkill and portray the adventures of these mercenaries with a clarity and economy.  More often than not, I felt that his hyper-kinetic and spastic direction subverted the schlocky fun and low rent flavor of the original series.  I remember the A-TEAM as a modest diversion on TV, not a bloated, overproduced, and over-directed adventure of impious visual excess that borders on eye straining.   This makes THE A-TEAM sort of superfluous and partially satisfying at the same time.  Fundamentalist fans of the show will like it; for the rest of us that are older than 12-13 or have grown up since the early 1980’s, the film – like the series – is both easy to digest, but easily forgotten.

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