Saturday, January 1, 2011

The A-Team Movie Review

The writers, producers and directors responsible for continuing to bring the depths of 80s action TV to the big screen have flubbed the job so badly I would almost look forward with great relief to a feature adaptation of “Charles in Charge.” G.I. Joe and Transformers (the sequel in particular) are so famously awful I almost feel shame at even admitting they exist and that I’ve seen them. The latest victim of getting the big screen treatment is The A-Team, with a clunker of a screenplay by Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods, who was responsible for the cinematic treasures Swordfish and Wolverine.

In its day, the television show “The A-Team” was a big budget action show with stirring effects and fight choreography. Watching it today is a reminder of how far television has come in 25 years to be closer and closer to the realism of movies. Its effects and choreography look laughably dated. Given the quality of the visual effects in this big screen adaptation directed by Carnahan, I hate to think what 25 years will do to the perception of this film. Of course, by that time it may only be viewed as a kind of cultural curiosity by film academics looking to examine what fueled the Hollywood excesses of the new millennium.

Honestly however, you won’t need to wait that long to view the effects as comical. Watch it today and you may just find yourself rolling on the floor. It’s the big budget, CGI equivalent of the B-movies directed by Ed Wood in the 1950s where you could see the zippers on the rubber costumes and the strings holding the flying saucers. This is yet another film that lives by the credo that everything digital is better. If it’s big, loud and dumb then you can fool the audience into thinking they’ve seen something interesting. Unfortunately it didn’t quite pay off for the producers of The A-Team as it didn’t even recoup its estimated budget of $110M at the domestic box office. After overseas ticket sales and the DVD market and merchandising tie-ins it will likely break even and maybe even turn a small profit.

If you’re familiar with the show then you know the four characters and their modus operandi as “soldiers of fortune,” basically a euphemism for mercenaries. Liam Neeson is the team leader Colonel Hannibal Smith. His team includes Lt. Faceman Peck (Bradley Cooper), Captain Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson). All the actors do a passable job of recalling the characters of the original series while also making them their own. Cooper’s Face, for example, is a little cockier. I can’t think of anyone better to play that character today. Cooper is building a respectable career by playing guys with the brash swagger to know how good-looking they are. Jackson’s B.A. has lost some of his childishness and has a bit more depth. Copley’s Murdock is still Howling Mad, of course, but with a bit more mystery. You’re never quite sure which side of loony he’s actually on. Neeson has the most thankless role, playing the only straight man in a group of real characters. His ubiquitous cigars provide all the character to Hannibal.

The plot is absolutely absurd and is really only employed as a formality to tie a bunch of (attempts at) slick action sequences together. It seems that some US currency engraving plates that were once in the possession of Iraq are now in the hands of some other Arabs (because Arabs are the catch-all bad guys now) and if the plates aren’t stolen back, they’ll be able to counterfeit billions of dollars of US currency. This is bad with a capital “B” and so Hannibal and his boys are sent in to recover them. But then there’s a double cross by a private security company (otherwise known as mercenaries) called Black Forest (a not so veiled reference to the real life Blackwater). The organization is given a face to hate in the personage of Pike (Brian Bloom).

Other players with an interest in recovering the plates are Lynch, a CIA company man played by Patrick Wilson and Lt. Sosa, an army intelligence officer played by Jessica Biel, who also happens to be an ex-girlfriend of Face, because what would a big dumb action movie be without sexual tension and a bit of romance on the side? Incidentally, Wilson seems to be the one actor who sees the movie for the farce that it is and does his level best to have a bit of fun with the mess he was given to work with.

The entire premise of the movie seems to be to throw the characters into as many dangerous scenarios as possible to showcase just how innovative Hannibal is as a strategist and planner of covert operations. “I love it when a plan comes together,” he’s fond of saying while chomping a cigar at the close of a successful mission. Each successive action sequence puts the characters in more peril than the last. There is seemingly nothing they can’t accomplish or survive, including barrel rolls and mid-air stalls in a helicopter. I’m no aviation expert, but I’m pretty sure neither of those things is remotely possible and they both supremely challenge my willing suspension of disbelief.

But apart from that, there comes a point in many action movies (and in this one it happened about 15 minutes in) when you realize that absolutely nothing terrible is going to happen to any of the main characters. This presents a genuine problem when it comes to dramatic tension. How do you string an audience along and create a sense of mortal danger if everyone knows that these fantastic four are going to come out the other end unscathed every time? It makes the focus of the entire exercise about the spectacle rather than the story and characters. I suppose that has its place, but your movie had better actually rely on top notch effects teams to produce the show. Otherwise you’re left with a vacuous excuse for a story.

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