It Pleases Me When a Scheme Starts to Gel
The A-Team is a lot like the capers carried out by its titular band of mercenaries: On paper, it shouldn't work at all, but in execution, it's got energy, action, and charisma to spare. The filmmakers share a pretty spotty c.v., with writer-director Joe Carnahan responsible for the solid Narc and the draining Smokin' Aces, while co-writer Skip Woods is accountable for Swordfish and Hitman and the other co-writer, Brian Bloom, is an actor known for his voice work who here gets his first ever writing credit. (In a nod to Bloom's video game performances, one character even references Call of Duty briefly.) In theory, there's no reason to trust these guys, but they've done the near impossible and turned a 27-year-old live-action cartoon for 10-year-olds into a fun, funny summer action flick. A big reason for their success comes down to the team itself, whose members generate enough chemistry and sense of pleasure in their own actions to keep you interested in a movie in which, just for one example, a tank is made to fly. The film is goofy and occasionally given to CGI that makes everything look rubbery; the screenplay is serviceable at best and the major twists are announced in semaphore; Liam Neeson doesn't for a moment pretend to try and hide his Irish accent. But The A-Team is still an enjoyable ride, and the quintessential summer movie that offers maximum return on minimum investment. It could be better, sure, but it could also be a hell of a lot worse.
Of course, turning a TV series into a film can be tricky. Do you (a) pay homage to the original or (b) go in a new direction? Do you (c) tacitly acknowledge that the film is a pseudo-canonical tale based on pre-existing characters or (d) start from scratch to build a rapport with the audience? Carnahan and company have chosen (e), all of the above, plus more. The first section of the film is the most reliant on whatever level of nostalgia viewers might feel for the original show, and as such it feels the flimsiest. For instance, there's no reason given in the film as to why Bosco "B.A." Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Johnson) has the words "PITY" and "FOOL" tattooed across his knuckles; it's just a gag meant to recall a Mr. T catchphrase from the early days of the Reagan administration. Similarly, the opening notes of the TV show's fanfare work when folded into the score, but the outright playing of the theme song when one character watches an old war movie is just a groaner. But when Carnahan can hold still and stop winking, the film gets a lot better.
The four main characters -- B.A., John "Hannibal" Smith (Neeson), Face (Bradley Cooper), and Murdock (Sharlto Copley) -- are introduced with freeze-frames and big blasts of text with their name, and the prologue shows them crossing paths and banding together for the first time on a mission to rescue Face from a Mexican general he was spying on for some reason. They're all Army Rangers, though B.A. has been discharged and Murdock committed to an asylum, but their successful first mission brings them all to active status and forges them into a special ops team that's successful at everything they try. Eight years later, they're in Iraq with U.S. forces in the final days of the American occupation (one of the few political twists in the film, and one whose ramifications go unmentioned by every character; this is, after all, a summer movie), and they're tasked with recovering a case of metal plates from Hussein loyalists that could be used to print a limitless supply of American currency. But of course there's a backfire that leaves the team members looking guilty of treason, after which they go to prison, break free, and set out to clear their names and find the real bad guys. The mechanics of the plot are simple and designed to lead from one insane heist or escape to the next, and those are the film's best moments.
Each successive action sequence is increasingly convoluted and daring, though Carnahan's not quite confident enough to let the thrills stand on their own without constantly shaking the camera or resorting to whip-pans and choppy editing that try to create a shorthand for "action" but instead just feel like, well, distracting gimmicks. Having a guy parachute out of an exploding plane in a tank and then pop the hatch and start shooting at enemy fighters is inherently a grinning, insane spectacle of a moment, but the blurriness and the resulting inability to often see what's happening start to look like smoke and mirrors after a point. After a few of these sequences, I found myself asking if the film was just dumb, but I realized the problem was it was treating me as if I was. For instance, Carnahan makes use of a genre classic on a few occasions by cutting between the planning of a heist and its high-speed execution. But too often he just keeps looping back to older footage during key moments, as if he doesn't trust the viewer to remember something that had happened seven minutes earlier. There's a level at which reference becomes pandering, and the biggest drawback to The A-Team is that it never really grabs the ball and just runs with it, letting viewers run happily in its wake.
However, it's still an entertaining action movie, and it's anchored by a solid cast. Neeson honestly doesn't seem to care about his muddy accent, but he's still a likable rogue. Cooper is ready-made for the role of the handsome, womanizing member of the team, and he's dropped the scent of cruelty that made his character in The Hangover tough to like and returned to doing what he does best, which is being charming and running around. Jackson, a professional MMA fighter, is predictably stiff, though whether this is because he's just a mediocre actor or because Carnahan wanted to pull off a ridiculously high-concept casting to parallel the similarly wooden Mr. T is up for debate. Copley, though, in only his second feature (after District 9), completely owns his scenes, and is much better at manipulating his South African accent into a Southern drawl, likely because he's a lot younger than Neeson and making a lot less money. His Murdock is mentally unstable but never really annoying and certainly not stupid. As an FBI agent and Face's ex-girlfriend, Jessica Biel is tasked with pouting and wearing suits, two feats at which she almost always succeeds. Patrick Wilson, though, is consistently good as a slimy CIA agent, thanks to his ability to inject humor into the situation.
Which is, after all, what makes the movie work. At its most entertaining, the film strives to be nothing more than a good afternoon at the theater, and that narrow focus works in its favor. This isn't a blockbuster like Iron Man, in which humor inevitably gives way to a story that has to be taken seriously to a certain degree in order to work; this is a movie where men drive a cargo truck off a bridge into a river and survive because they've bolted air bags to the side. Even in its heaviest moments, it's lighter than air.