THE A-TEAM (2010) (**)
The original TV series was one of my favorites growing up as a kid. I eagerly tuned in each week to watch what new adventure these soldiers of fortune got themselves wrapped up in. You knew they'd get themselves in deep and need to use whatever they had to get out of a pickle. And who could forget that badass theme song? As the feature began and team leader Hannibal Smith was introduced, I thought I might be getting a cool iconic soldier of fortune flick. Then I got past the first five minutes.
This origin story of sorts begins with Hannibal (Liam Neeson, TAKEN) freeing himself from corrupt Mexican cops who have taken his partner Face (Bradley Cooper, THE HANGOVER) hostage. Apparently Hannibal's master plan to save his friend is to walk across the desert and hope someone drives by. Luckily the person who drives by is B.A. Baracus (UFC fighter Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), who has just retrieved his beloved van from some thugs. Hannibal shoots B.A. in the arm and then convinces him that he needs to go on a mission to save a fellow ranger. Arriving just in time to save Face from being burned to death, the trio races across Mexico to an insane asylum where they have lined-up patient Murdock (Sharlto Copley, DISTRICT 9) to fly them to safety. If you think that is preposterous, you ain't seen nothing yet.
The foursome are now working as a covert team for the U.S. military and are currently serving in Iraq. How B.A., who said he was dishonorably discharged, was reinstated into the service is never explained. Word comes down that Saddam loyalists have gotten their hands on $100 printing plates and are forging millions in counterfeit bills. Face's former flame Capt. Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel, THE ILLUSIONIST) comes to warn Face to stay out of Baghdad and away from the plates. A private contractor named Black Forest (doesn't that sound just like…), led by Pike (Brian Bloom, JUSTICE LEAGUE: CRISIS ON TWO EARTHS) has been assigned the task. Hannibal, meanwhile, petitions Gen. Morrison (Gerald McRaney, TV's MAJOR DAD) to go on the mission, but the general warns him against it. However, that doesn't stop the A-Team from going after the plates on the orders of CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson, WATCHMEN).
Having both of these adventures back-to-back creates a dilemma. They bog down the narrative for anyone who knows that the A-Team was convicted of a war crime they didn't commit. The mission in Mexico is like the TV series, but for this film, it's just fat that could have been trimmed. The feature is not about the A-Team as soldiers of fortune, but as fugitives on the run trying to clear their names. I guess they'll get around to all the stuff we're accustomed to them doing in the sequel.
So if this isn't the ultimate iconic solider of fortune flick in the vein of DIRTY DOZEN or THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN then what is it? It's a cartoon. And I say that not to insult cartoons. One ridiculous action sequence follows another. At one point, the foursome fights off drone fighters in a plummeting tank. Face pops out of the hatch and starts shooting like Charlie Sheen did when he went crazy in the foxhole in PLATOON.
Hannibal is supposed to be this brilliant planner, but when he leaves the doors open to a trailer full of millions and doesn't expect it to walk away, or if part of one plan is to use fake passports and he mixes up B.A.'s with Murdock's, or if a key element of a plan is to catch a kidnap target thrown from a window with a helicopter, one starts to believe that Hannibal might want to relinquish his planning duties to someone else. Oh wait, Face isn't any better. Just wait to you see his brilliant plan with fireworks and all to close the film. And I'm serious about the fireworks it's part of a distraction. Now I'm not saying the TV series wasn't over-the-top in its own right, but the feature makes the series look like BLACK HAWK DOWN.
But the ridiculous action is just summer fun. If all you're going into this film is to see cigars smoked, fools pitied and things explode than that might be the case. But you can do that and make a movie that engages the audience as well. Early on the film steals a gag from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and one could say that film is the model on how to do over-the-top action while keeping the audience engaged. In A-TEAM, there is zero tension because Hannibal, B.A., Face and Murdock are superheroes up against mere humans. The bumbling CIA agents after them can't even shoot a handcuffed man sitting next to them in a car. Ha, ha, funny gag, but it makes the A-Team's chief adversary seem like a chump. The A-Team outsmarts its opponents almost every step of the way. And when they don't, it never seems like the bad guys have the upper hand, only that the A-Team are idiots.
One thing the film has going for it is casting. Neeson, Cooper and Copley are perfect. Neeson brings devilish charm. Cooper brings good looks and a suave confidence. Copley is off his rocker. Rampage is no Mr. T though. He brings the right dose of menace, but not the star charisma. And what's with B.A.'s prison conversion to pacifism?
I wouldn't ask for nuance in an A-TEAM movie, but something to care about would have been nice. The one thing I clearly remember about the TV show was the A-Team championing the underdog. Kind of like the seven samurai with mohawks and blowtorches. It made you instantly care about them and their mission. The underdog in the film is the CIA. And when are we ever supposed to root for those guys?