Sunday, June 20, 2010

The A-Team Review

The A-Team
Directed by Joe Carnahan
Released in 2010

When walking into a theater to watch the latest summer blockbuster, your standards for enjoyment are set much differently than they would be if you were seeing, say, Doubt. An explosion or two, or three or four, and a familiar cast of macho men and pretty ladies are all that is really necessary for a hit. Audiences love it when this plan comes together, to paraphrase Col. Hannibal Smith, but critics usually do not. I like to think of myself as not too snobbish in my opinions (I took Iron Man 2 for the glitzy fun it was), but I have to side with the evil pundits on this one. The A-Team is a reasonably fun time with a few particularly sharp action sequences, but it is drowned in many flat attempts at humor, a ridiculously predictable plot, and, most shocking of all, a lack of real excitement. 

To paraphrase Hannibal Smith again, the plot is so banal and predictable that you can always see three steps ahead. That being said, it is serviceable for this brand of brainless cheese. As we all know, this movie is based off the absurd television show of the 80s. The premise of that series, in which four Vietnam veterans are charged of a crime they did not commit and subsequently fight for peace through covert means, is used here. The only edit here is, instead of the Vietnam War, these soldiers served in the Iraq War, which actually ends near the beginning of this movie. Let's bring that detail to life, please. Nonetheless, the A-Team is comprised of four members:  the leader, Hannibal (Liam Neeson); the philanderer, Face (Bradley Cooper); the brawn, B.A. (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson); and the deranged, Murdock (Sharlto Copley). Throughout the film, their status oscillates between heroic acclaim or unjust ostracization by the military. This fluctuation of stature provides a constant conflict, on top of defeating the antagonists, but, in the end, there were one too many double crosses for a senseless flick like this to handle properly. 

As trailers will attest to and the cast alone shows, this is a man's film. At least, that is what I believe. For every scene of B.A. piledriving a fool, you get about five minutes of shirtless Bradley Cooper. This puzzled me, perhaps more than any other aspect of this movie. Sure, the guy is in great shape and is, to quote Hannibal for the third and hopefully last time, "really tan." But, unless you are a bodybuilding monster like an 80s Stallone or Schwarzenegger, a topless male lead will not appeal that much to the masculine crowd this film is meant for. If it is trying to reel in (Steely Dan references are incessant in this movie as well) a female audience, every other aspect of this film, such as Jessica Biel's near useless role as nothing more than eye candy, screams otherwise. The wise middle ground? Try the guinea tee, a la Bruce Willis in Die Hard, for a mix of muscle and moderation. 

Digressions aside, there is still enough masculinity to appease the average action junkie. Liam Neeson chows on enough fat cigars to make J. Jonah Jameson blush, and the ridiculous stunts (assisted by a nagging presence of CGI) are so bombastic that they will appease anyone who only values spectacle. There are many ludicrous explosions, more so than necessary, but that was the point of the original series in the first place. The special effects and action could be better, as all the hand-to-hand fight scenes are shakily filmed in a way that aims for Greengrass' Bourne films but fails to achieve that sense of palpable grit. It should not be this way, as the director Joe Carnahan also did Smokin' Aces, a movie with a more outrageous storyline but some really innovative, spectacular action sequences. 

There are a few noteworthy scenes to mention, however. It will send any physicist to an early grave, but there is a part in the movie when the team is "piloting" a military the sky...freefalling...reaching terminal shooting the cannon at certain degrees. Hannibal barks the angle placements with such timed certainty that you cannot help but laugh at the preposterous premise this scene holds. Their solution is to land in a small lake, where an old couple is using dynamite to fish no less, so learning to accept the nonsensical science, or lack thereof, is mandatory to get through the film. Less egregious is a Dark Knight-esque skyscraper assault in which the A-Team truly fulfills its potential by incorporating grapple hooks, flashbangs, and a low-flying helicopter into one shocking attack. This scene is the one that sticks out in the end as what the film could have been if everything was done with such care.

Unfortunately, said care was not paid to most of the film. The finale throws (literal) fireworks at the audience with its large setpiece and liberal amount of fiery detonations, resulting in an ostentatious display of soulless action. It adds insult to injury when the screenwriters underestimate the intelligence of the audience when they constantly throw a barrage of flashbacks on the screen just to make sure the viewer knows how certain plot twists relate to previous events. It infuriates me when a sleight of hand maneuver that was furtively done five minutes before is interpolated between the unfolding action, only with an added video filter or two to exclaim, "HEY, REMEMBER THIS? didn't see that move coming did you?" Sorry, but everyone did. Everyone.

The team of four leads are all fine actors in their own right (though I am not too acquainted with Quinton Jackson's acting career), but the material that they are given does not make them particularly compelling or even comical. The mentally ill pilot, Murdock, is positioned to be the key comic relief for the film, but some of his lines simply fall flat. This is no fault to the magnificent actor filling his role, District 9's Sharlto Copley, as he takes bad lemons and attempts to make fine wine. There are welcome instances when his character is legitimately hilarious, such as his Braveheart parody or any teasing badinage between him and B.A..  When the main antagonist, Pike, not only watches but offers assistance to his own bumbling supposed executioner as he struggles with attaching a pistol suppressor, a successful scene of hilarity is made. But a lack of real laughs is an Achilles heel for any popcorn action film as self-aware as The A-Team, and considering some bad lines even repeat themselves (Enough with the toast points, B.A.), it is obvious more effort could have gone into the script. 

Speaking of Bosco "I ain't gettin on no plane!" Baracus, the UFC fighter slides into the vintage mohawk rather well, but he is still a perplexing character. Mr. T's original portrayal of the character included a fear of flying, which is humorously explained in the [very, very long] intro, but this film takes it farther by attempting to make him a pacifist as well. This leads to an odd character progression in which he starts as a cold blooded killing machine, reforms to an enlightened student of Mohandas Gandhi, but then returns to his bloody ways at the end. This makes him a pretty weak character in a sense, and he is not on screen as much as one would expect anyway. I would be lying, however, if I said I did not grin at watching Jackson kick a hapless, capoeira-twirling enemy into a wall about seven feet away. Now that is why I went to see this movie in the first place.

Bradley Cooper is mildly nagging in his dominant role, perhaps usurping Hannibal for on-screen facetime (sorry, could not resist the pun). He was a great fit for The Hangover, but this dude is not cut out to be the Tom Cruise that seems to be the aim here. On the other hand, Liam Neeson continues to put forth so much effort in roles that demand so little, as he did with Taken two years ago. The delightfully tacky line, "I love it when a plan comes together," is repeated a few times, and Neeson continually delivers it with such defined authority that the perpetually delayed Spielberg biopic, Lincoln, in which Liam plays the eponymous president, seems like the best idea of all time (seriously, get on that). 

Overall, The A-Team  is a superficial, fun time at the movies that always feels like it is failing to meet its real potential. Explosions ring left and right, but there is nothing between the ears. In the end, you may feel shocked that you were not actually shocked by any particular scene or plot twist in the movie. We have all seen it before; these are not the droids you are looking for. Adjust your expectations accordingly, for enjoyment can be had here in more than a modest degree, but I pity the fools behind this who did not deliver on all cylinders. 

Final Verdict:
3 Stars Out of 5

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