Saturday, June 19, 2010

The A-Team

I don't know what it says about America's state of consciousness when a loopy blockbuster like the A-Team remake includes a severe scene that points out Gandhi's willingness to condone violence under certain circumstances. Plopped at the heart of dumb, intermittently fun film based on a dumb, intermittently fun television series, this moment represents everything wrong with what is otherwise the most enjoyable of the current slate of '80s throwbacks.

The A-Team starts pleasantly enough, with Army Ranger Col. John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson, who has apparently given up on intriguing films but has at least managed to reinvent himself into our collective ass-kicking elder uncle) pulling off an appropriately convoluted rescue of smooth-talking, gorgeous-faced con-man Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper), a rescue based entirely upon the complete coincidence of running into yet another Ranger, Bosco "B.A." Baracus (Quinton Jackson) in the middle of the Mexican desert. Hannibal quickly establishes himself as a man who places stock in fate, because he'd have to in order to expect his absurd plans to work.

Of course, the plan does work, and the new trio incur the wrath of a corrupt Mexican general. To make good their escape and take care of the enemy, the men recruit a final Ranger, the mentally unstable, crackerjack pilot H.M. Murdock (Sharlto Copley). The A-Team assembled, the quartet becomes the best damn spec ops unit the Army has ever seen, to the point that, when the film cuts eight years into the future with the United States set to leave Iraq, the calm vibe and friendly rapport between Hannibal and some indigenous soldiers suggest that the conflict turned out much better for the A-Team's presence.

By this point, The A-Team is already lethargic, having spent most of its setup simply introducing the team and devoting only a few lines to the mercenary squad, Black Forest, and their leader, Pike (Brian Bloom, who also co-wrote the movie). The only reason the film even bothers to introduce Pike at all is so we have any clue who the villain is when the A-Team finally get burned 10 minutes later and find themselves falsely convicted and imprisoned.

Naturally, no prison can hold such super-soldiers, and, nearly 40 minutes into the film, the plot begins. The rest of The A-Team plays out in a series of sub-Rube Goldberg devices as Hannibal and co. seek revenge on Pike for their disgrace and the death of their beloved General Morrison (Gerald McRaney). It's interesting to see a character like Hannibal, who can anticipate his foes' actions three or four steps ahead, playing the role of the hero when his type more recalls the Joker and a different Hannibal; for all his grating talk about fate, Hannibal's intelligence offers a key grounding when the film gets ahead of itself.

Which it does, and often. DCIS officer Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel, here mainly to provide a stable love interest for Cooper's character), always seeking to take down the A-Team for their supposed crimes and subsequent escape, notes that the four men "specialize in the ridiculous," which surely cannot be the way military personnel refer to covert ops missions. The A-Team survive a missile attack on their getaway plane by stowing away in a tank in the cargo hold (which conveniently has parachutes attached), Hannibal escapes prison with the help of a special cigar and the unlikely ability to kick the flame jets of a crematorium to save himself, and the final battle is so utterly stupid that the suspension cables holding up your disbelief will snap like licorice vines. Even Hannibal's intelligence crumbles after a point, forcing the collected colonel to turn to a plan even more absurd than his own schemes.

Yet the lunacy of some of these sequences is infinitely preferable to the obtuse attempt at seriousness. Blockbusters these days want to protect themselves against criticism by virtue of their over-the-top action, equating inanity with escapism, yet they also all play for a more grounded feel that not only fails to give them any resonance but undermines the attempt for pure, zany fun. When Hannibal voices his disgust toward the mercenaries of Black Forest or casts a wary eye at the mysterious CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson, who's just too innately likable to keep acting through a series of douchebags with different names), the undercurrents of larger issues of military privatization and an unchecked intelligence branch begin to swirl before being diverted far, far away from the story, nothing more than facile hot buttons to lazily tap into contemporary concerns.

I had hoped that a movie featuring a parachuting tank firing machine gun rounds at unmanned drones and maneuvering in mid-air through the recoil of firing the main cannon might at least have acknowledged its lack of realism and thus spared the audience the dreaded shakycam. Sadly, 'twas not to be; The A-Team is one of the worst offenders of bad hand-held camera work and too-rapid editing in some time, needlessly trying to disorient in a film that does not want to place you in the roles of terrified soldiers just trying to survive. The A-Team are a pack of ├╝bermenschen who hoot and holler in the middle of the most dangerous situations; the aesthetic simply does not match their own unflappable bravery -- only when B.A. collapses at the sight of a flying vehicle does any one of them display pure fear.

B.A., in fact, is the crux of everything wrong with the film. Once played by that wonderfully outlandish madman, Mr T., B.A. should be the most ridiculous character here, and Jackson certainly uses the word "fool" enough to remind everyone who used to play the part. Yet Baracus' conversion to pacifism during incarceration becomes a disturbing subplot. It's not disturbing because of the actual aims of pacifism, of course, but because the execution of Baracus' decision not to kill fashions his choice into some grand joke, which is exactly what the writers intended it to be. The rest of his character arc involves his "recovery," as if the writers all watched Straw Dogs and mistook the devolution of Dustin Hoffman's character from a timid pacifist into a primal killing machine symbolized a positive change. This entire side of the film is so bizarre in its structuring that the idea of B.A. needing to return to a way of violence is less offensive than simply bewildering.

However, when The A-Team finally stops messing around -- which, at a bloated two hours, it does in several excruciating locations -- it stumbles into an idiot savant mentality, the meticulous planning of the team's missions rubbing against just how insane those missions are. Director Joe Carnahan makes the dubious decision to play the execution of the A-Team's plans in tandem with the team rehearsing them before each mission detracts from the enjoyment of watching those plans play out as, for all their complexity, none is so hard to follow that we need someone to tell us what's happening while the team's in action. Still, who doesn't get a kick out of watching a tank plummeting to Earth while firing its payload in one last measure of defiance? Who couldn't be pleased that District 9 breakout star Sharlto Copley makes the most of his big Hollywood opportunity and completely walks away with the film as a brain-fried redneck whose piloting skills are superior to the laws of physics? Hell, the ridiculousness of the film's action suddenly doesn't matter whenever Copley makes some random yet precise one-liner at its expense.

However, The A-Team, like so many of these movies, left me hollow. When did escapism stop grasping for wonder and start settling merely for trying to make everyone lose two hours? When did mainstream American cinema become a goddamn power nap? The A-Team's vast inconsistencies of tone, its blowhard anti-mercenary rhetoric preceding the protagonists' own re-emergence as soldiers for hire and the intermittent joy of its empty spectacles cancel out what could have been a damn fine comedy if everyone involved had just realized that Neeson, Cooper, Copley and Jackson made for a better comic gang than a convincing crack squad of super-soldiers. Still, with the recent influx of '80s nostalgia, this, the most literal of the set so far given its roots in an actual product of the decade, is by some measure the most fun and easygoing. The A-Team, protracted sugar high that it is, at least keeps its feelings of self-awareness in check, not trying too hard to convince us that this dumb stuff is actually clever. Only in a crap year like this could I respect that.


  1. Unsurprisingly, I can't recall a single episode of the series (and I think I saw them all). But I do remember vividly a scene where a helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain, followed by the pilots staggering out unscathed, wiping dust off their jackets. That show carved out a niche in non-violent violence, which I guess is something.

  2. Really, if this year has taught me anything, it's that I should be thankful I didn't have to deal with '80s. I'll just take the Smiths, Sonic Youth, David Lynch, Minutemen and Prince in his prime and be on my way.

  3. The dubious decision you mention of playing out a scene as we hear the team rehearsing it wasn't Carnahan's was a staple of the original show.

    I hear what you're saying about escapism being less full of wonder these days, but I don't think that A-TEAM was ever trying for that sort of achievement.

    This is a popcorn flick that has more in common with TRUE LIES and FACE/OFF than it does with JURASSIC PARK and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. That's to say that it's escapism with silly action in lieu of actual imagination. That's not a bad it?

  4. I think it is. They swap out cleverness for facile stunts that pass from the mind instantly. But there's a huge market for blowing shit up, regardless of how well it's actually pulled off. True Lies has wit behind it. Face/Off, well, that's just a glorious train wreck. But both those movies actually try.

  5. Its a great fun watching this movie. There were some scenes in the movie that were so amazing that they just left me unspoken.

  6. this movie was a lot of fun. I know they seem to bend the laws of physics but non the less I enjoyed watching this movie. Liam Neesam seems to always be able to bring a cast together no matter how different they may be.