A-Team, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 06/11/10 00:04:05

"Face Off"
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

When “The A-Team” premiered on NBC back in 1983, I was a 12-year-old boy and therefore clearly part of the target audience for its weekly offering of kooky characters, repetitive storytelling and outrageous action sequences in which billions of bullets were fired, hundreds of cars were smashed and nobody ever received as much as a token flesh wound unless it was a Very Special Episode. Although I recall that it would be on in our house, I don’t think that I ever actually sat down and watched an entire episode from start to finish during its five-year run--at most, it would serve as inconsequential background noise while I was struggling through my math homework--and I know that I haven’t revisited it at all during its subsequent years of syndication. And yet, thanks to some apparent cultural decree that states that every movie or TV show that was popular during the 1980’s must be given the reboot treatment in the hopes of scoring box-office success from fans of the original and people who weren’t even alive when it first aired. This time around, the explosions are bigger and the bullets occasionally hit their targets but for the most part, “The A-Team” has not exactly improved with age over the years. Then again, in all fairness, neither have my math skills.

For those of you who either weren’t around at the time or who were far better at math than I, the show was essentially a militarized version of that old warhorse “The Fugitive” that told the story of a quartet of Vietnam-era Army Rangers--grizzled, cigar-chomping leader Hannibal Smith, suave con man Templeton “Face” Peck, lunatic pilot “Howling Mad” Murdock and Mohawked motorman B.A. Baracus--who were framed for crimes they didn’t commit, busted out of military prison and went around the world (okay, the backlots of Southern California) as soldiers of fortune to help in need while trying to clear their names and evade capture by the military. The film opens with their very first mission, a conflict that literally finds them coming together under fire. While attempting to bring down a Mexican drug lord, Hannibal (Liam Neeson. . .yes, Liam Neeson) is captured by his minions and left to starving dogs while Face (Bradley Cooper) is about to be torched by the bad guy for sleeping with his wife. Hannibal escapes his predicament and while running halfway across Mexico to save Face (no pun intended), he just happens to run across B.A. (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) driving through the desert and commandeers his vehicle. They arrive in the ta-daa nick of time to rescue Face and, with the drug lord and his men in hot pursuit, hurry off to the local V.A. hospital to spring Murdoch (Sharlto Copely in the follow-up to his star-making turn in last summer’s “District 9”) and take to the skies for an air chase that ends when the team lure the bad guy into American airspace and, in a move that should go over well in most theaters in Arizona, blow him to pieces. Before that, it should be noted, they manage to evade a couple of heat-seeking missiles in a way that suggests that the screenwriters evidently saw the immortal “The Concorde--Airport ’79.”

Eight years later, the team is in Iraq helping to oversee the final withdrawal of American troops when they are entrusted by their loyal commander, General Morrison (Gerald McRaney. . .yes, Gerald McRaney) and a mysterious C.I.A. spook known only as Lynch (Patrick Wilson) with a top-secret mission to prevent valuable U.S. Treasury plates that were stolen by Saddam Hussein’s men as part of a plan to flood the world with billion in worthless money from being taken out of the country. The team pulls off the mission brilliantly (and only violating a few international treaties and most of the existing laws of physics) but when they return, the general is killed, the plates are stolen by members of a Blackwater-like group (named Black Forest for those who prefer things to be a little less subtle) and, with no actual proof that they were on an authorized mission in the first place, the four are court-martialed and thrown in separate military prisons across the world. Six months later, the team is sprung with the help of Lynch in order to find the Black Forest guy and retrieve the plates before he can sell them to an Arab no-goodnik. At this point, the films basically becomes one extended and wildly over-the-top action sequence after another and while I won’t go into details about what transpires (mostly because I don’t think I could do such a thing even if you put a gun to my head), I will mention that they involve such ingredients as double-crosses, surprise revelations, the relentless pursuit of the team by a comely military officer (Jessica Biel) who has a past relationship with one of the members (I’ll let you guess which one), a flying tank, a team-produced 3-D movie, a rendition of “Anarchy in the U.K.” over a scene taking place in Germany, the world’s biggest and bloodiest shell game, a particularly ridiculous example of facial hair, massive explosions and an inspirational speech in which a character uses a quote from Gandhi to convince someone to abandon their pacifistic ways and start blowing up the bad guys again.

As loyal readers will hopefully recall, I don’t necessarily have an inherent problem with films that are filled with crazy-go-nuts action sequences that consistently push the boundaries of common sense--after all, Luc Besson is one of my favorite filmmakers and the vast majority of the films that he has made over the years, both as a director and as a producer, are chock-full of such things. However, when Besson puts a sequence like that together, he choreographs all of the various elements that go into such a thing with such exquisite precision that no matter how insane things get, viewers always have a firm grasp of what is going on and where the participants are in relation to everyone else. The trouble with too many current action extravaganzas, including “The A-Team,” is that the filmmakers are so hell-bent on coming up with something that will jolt increasingly jaded viewers that they ignore everything else in the process and the result is a lot of money shots but absolutely no foreplay to speak of. For example, the big finale here is ingenious in theory but director Joe Carnahan (whose previous effort was that symphony of subtlety known as “Smokin’ Aces”) just doesn’t quite have the skills to put all the pieces together and the result is a cacophony of carnage that is almost impossible to follow along at any given moment. There is one fairly spectacular and completely nutty sequence at the midway point of the film in which everything goes off more or less like clockwork but then again, since it involves a tank plunging from the skies, the choreography isn’t that hard to figure out.

Of course, there are other problems with the film besides the incoherence of most of the action scenes. The story is a fairly weak compendium of clichés that takes forever to start and forever to finish. The bad guys couldn’t be duller if they tried--with every other aspect of the film straining to be as colorful and over-the-top as possible, why give us the standard cardboard villains from countless other films of this ilk. The Biel character is completely useless--even if you buy here as an ambitious military type (an idea that doesn’t strain credulity as much as her turn as a 1920’s flapper in “Easy Living” but which comes pretty close), all of her scenes pretty much drag the proceedings to a halt. (As I recall, the original series kept trying to shoehorn in a female character as well throughout its run with equal success.) One of the strangest things, however, is watching the four leads offering performances that are little more than flat-out imitations of the people from the original show without bringing anything new to the table. In a way, I suppose this approach makes sense--it was those personalities that made the show a hit as much as the explosions--but the end result is more off-putting at times than anything else. Look, I like George Peppard as much as anyone else but the idea of hiring an actor as skilled as Liam Neeson and requiring him to do a George Peppard impression for two hours is akin to hiring Bob Dylan to do a concert and then limiting him to the Justin Beiber songbook. The only one of the four who manages to bring some degree of genuine personality to the proceedings is Sharlto Copely as Murdock and the film repays him for his efforts by inexplicably keeping him off-screen for a good chunk of the finale.

Although I can’t say that I enjoyed “The A-Team” that much, I will admit that it does go down a little easier than most of the other hard-sell summer blockbusters that have been cluttering up multiplexes as of late. For one thing, it never makes the mistake of trying to take itself too seriously (the mind boggles at the thought of a serious version of “The A-Team”) and when a character remarks at one point that “Overkill is underrated,” it feels as if one of the screenwriters decided to slip in a reference to the mantra that guided the entire production. For another, it seems a bit silly to come down to hard on a film like this--for better or worse, it is what it is and to attempt to apply critical logic to the proceedings seems more than a bit foolish. Finally, whatever its flaws, it is certainly more entertaining than the similar “The Losers,” if only because at no point does it require a helicopter filled with small children to be blown to bits to get from point A to point B in the narrative. These vague virtues don’t exactly lift “The A-Team” to the point where it is worth recommending but after sitting through such misbegotten lumps as “Robin Hood” and “Prince of Persia,” you have to take your brief glimmers of hope where you can find them.

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