Rick’s grade: 7 out of 10
By RICK GERSHMAN
If any film demands to be graded on a curve, it’s The A-Team.
Simply consider the notion of making a big-budget summer movie from of one of the cheesiest television shows of an already-cheesy TV era (the early 1980s).
It’s a crafty plan to lower your expectations. As long the movie isn’t two hours of punching grandmothers and kicking puppies, you’re likely to leave the theater saying, “that was better than I expected.”
Guess what? It works like a charm. I can already hear the producers saying, “I love it when a plan comes together.”
The A-Team, against all odds, is one extremely entertaining film. It puts pedal to metal about 90 seconds in and never lets up. That’s also savvy because it’s also kind of a mess that would collapse under its own weight if it slowed down for more than two minutes.
Director Joe Carnahan (Smokin’ Aces, Narc) isn’t taking that chance. Action scenes come flying at you hard and heavy from start to finish. The results are mixed: Some sequences are choppy and confusing, others thrilling. But like a comedy that never stops pitching jokes, content if only half of them stick, The A-Team pitches action, action, action, with a side of action and a little action to wash it down.
The plot follows the general concept of the TV series with a few tweaks. A lengthy opening credits sequence set in Mexico shows us how the team of former Army Rangers comes together: Leader John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson), his right-hand man Templeton “Face” Peck (Bradley Cooper), powerful Bosco “B.A.” Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) and loony pilot James “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley).
We jump ahead several years, where the A-Team is now an Army covert operations crew with dozens of successful missions under their belts. But when they’re set up for a fall by a variety of villainous forces, the boys have to break out of jail and fight to clear their names.
That’s pretty much all you wanted to know about the plot, right? Because it gets pretty confusing from there and doesn’t matter in the slightest anyway. It’s only there to support – that’s right – action, action and even more action.
Before I tell you why A-Team is worth your hard-earned cash – and I honestly believe it is – I should lay out its many faults.
Though Carnahan directed, it’s not surprising to see director Tony Scott was one of the producers. Too many scenes evince Scott’s “look” – the camera shoved in way too tight on the actors, so you can’t tell what the hell’s going on in fight scenes or big gun battles.
The special effects are wildly uneven too, especially in the climax where (this is no real spoiler) enormous stacks of shipping containers come crashing down like a Godzilla-sized methhead was playing Jenga. It looks like the usual Hollywood problem of the CGI being “just good enough” to make a locked-in release date. This time, it’s nowhere near good enough.
But then, The A-Team is a nitpicker’s dream, if you really want to go there. The presence of Jessica Biel almost seems like an inside joke – “we’re not taking this seriously, and neither should you, so let’s cast a gorgeous but astonishingly wooden actor in this role.”
You’re wondering whether she’s really that bad. Look at it this way: This is the first major film role for “Rampage” Jackson, an MMA fighter. He’s not great, but he’s not too bad – and that’s high praise for a non-actor stepping into the iconic role originated by the one-and-only Mr. T. Yet he’s a good bit more believable than Biel, who has starred in more than a dozen major studio films.
It’s also odd that while the film makes such strong nods to the TV show created by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo, credited cameo appearances by the original Face and Murdock, Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz, flew past me (and at least two other reviewers) completely unnoticed. Yet there’s a very noticeable cameo at the end by a well-known TV star who has no ties to The A-Team. Simply strange.
So with those issues, what makes The A-Team so entertaining? The rest of the cast, actually. If you can look past Biel (actually, look right at her, that’s what she’s there for), the film is jam-packed with colorful, charismatic performances.
Neeson (Taken, Clash of the Titans) seems a bit odd at first stepping into George Peppard’s shoes as Hannibal, being considerably taller, leaner and tougher. But that’s appropriate for the movie, which is basically the TV show on (lots and lots of) steroids. No attempt is made to explain his Irish accent, nor that of Copley (District 13), who is South African. It doesn’t matter: Somehow in this film, it works.
But the film decides early on to focus on Cooper, hot off his success in The Hangover, and it’s the right choice. You’d never have guessed the guy who played eighth fiddle on Alias would be front-and-center for a starmaking performance, but it’s true.
The A-Team shows off Cooper’s buffed-up physique almost to the point of absurdity – he’s shirtless onscreen more than Mark Wahlberg in Date Night – but Cooper’s charisma carries the day throughout. It’s the perfect upgrade on Benedict’s original “Face Man” character.
A well-rounded supporting cast also delivers. Patrick Wilson and Brian Bloom, as potentially shady characters related to the A-Team’s troubles, steal every scene they’re in. (It probably doesn’t hurt that Bloom, a veteran actor mostly relegated to TV work, gets co-writing credit with Carnahan and Skip Woods.) Their wonderfully brash characters bring welcome levity to the pounding machine of gunfights and explosions that propels The A-Team.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t note the drinking game that by all rights should be borne from this film: Drink whenever a guy with icy blue eyes is onscreen. Drink twice when two guys with icy-blue eyes have a conversation. Drink three times when they fight.
You’d pass out halfway through the film. There’s Cooper and Neeson alone, plus Bloom and Wilson, with a little Gerald McRaney – yes, Major Dad himself – thrown in for good measure.
Seriously, if you’re really into dudes with bright blue eyes, The A-Team is like porn. If you’re into nonstop action and lots of male bonding, The A-Team is like porn. If you’re into deep, fully-realized female characters – well, you’re screwed.
But if you had to ask me what I would want a big-screen take on a really silly TV show to be, The A-Team more than fits the bill. It’s ridiculous, sure. But it’s also a ridiculous amount of fun.
Director: Joe Carnahan
Writers: Carnahan, Brian Bloom, Skip Woods
Stars: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Brian Bloom, Gerald McRaney
Running time: 117 min.