Review: 'The A-Team' offers up the textbook definition of dumb fun
"The A-Team" is a completely ludicrous movie.
Everything about the movie is ridiculous. The casting is absurd, with pros like Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper sharing pretty much the entire running time with Quentin "Rampage" Jackson and Sharlto Copely. The TV show that the film is based on was a formula so simple even 12-year-olds felt like they were smarter than the storytelling. The action set pieces in the film are an affront to the laws of physics. The story is an aimless mess of cliche.
It's also heaps of fun.
From the moment this one was announced, I've had my arms folded in stern disapproval, annoyed not because the material is sacred, but for the exact opposite reason. It seemed like the bottom of the barrel. And yet sitting in the theater, watching the chaos and madness that Joe Carnahan orchestrated, it's such well-orchestrated chaos and madness that I stopped thinking about this as a remake or an update or whatever it is, and just started enjoying the lunacy of the ride.
Last week, Universal sent over a van-shaped box set of the original series, which I never really watched as a kid, and I threw on a few episodes. It seems silly to own 100-plus episodes of this, since every one of them seems to be exactly the same. That's what TV used to be... an excuse to watch the exact same thing every week. One of the reasons I actually watch more TV these days is because it's evolved past that, and in some ways, movies are starting to play that role. When people go see a sequel or a remake or a reboot, it's not because they want a brand-new experience... it's because they're chasing the familiar. They want the sensation of watching something new that is the exact same thing, the exact same sensation and feeling that they enjoyed before.
Now that I've seen the film, I can say they paid due homage to the show, but they also felt free to play fast and loose with the details of things. The film serves as an origin story, and there was some major refiguring that had to be done in order to put these versions of the characters together. In the original series, everyone supposedly served together in Vietnam, but this time around, the ages are all over the place. Liam Neeson's gotta have 20 years on Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson, at least, and I couldn't tell you the age difference between Neeson and Cooper or Neeson and Copely, but I'll bet there is one. The film does some narrative gymnastics to get them all together at the beginning of the film and set them up as a team working within the military, just so it can put them into the situation that served as the basis for the entire TV series.
For those who haven't seen the series, you don't need to. The film is completely self-contained. A commando team who handles the operations that no one else can is framed for robbery and murder in the last days of the Iraq war, and in order to clear their names, they have to find the people who really did it while outrunning military police and civilian authorities. That's it. It's pretty much the exact same story as this spring's "The Losers," completely with a slimy CIA agent behind the whole thing played by a strong character actor. In this case, it's Patrick Wilson instead of Jason Patric, but it's sort of amazing how close the two films are in terms of structure and basic story.
The difference is that "The Losers" tried to keep things stripped down and simple, coasting more on chemistry and charisma than on the actual action, while "The A-Team" builds several sequences that are just insane in terms of scale and style. I enjoyed both films in very different ways. I think the four leads in "The A-Team" are all doing their own thing, and while they're individually good in it, I don't know that I ever felt like they were really meshing in terms of performance style. Liam Neeson has genuinely reinvented himself as a big badass in the last few years, and I'm just surprised it hadn't happened earlier. He's a huge guy, and his physical presence gives him a credibility as the leader of this particular group. I know Mr. T has fans, and I guess I can see why you'd like him as a personality, but he was always a fairly terrible actor, and nothing I saw on "The A-Team" convinced me otherwise. "Rampage" Jackson is actually a stronger actor than Mr. T was, and he makes B. A. Baracus into a welcome part of the team, menacing but loyal, all brawn and happy to leave the brains to other people. Bradley Cooper's transformation into Hollywood's King Of Self-Aware Smarm is now complete, and he has the exact right charisma for "Face." For me, the thing I was most curious about ahead of time was how Sharlto Copely would handle his first role after "District 9," which was largely improvised. It turns out that he was sort of inspired casting as "Mad Dog" Murdock, the possibly-crazy pilot of the team, and it's appropriate that he seems to spend the entire film listening to his own private radio station.
I flipped out for Joe Carnahan's "Narc," and since then, I've been waiting for him to live up to that film's potential. While "The A-Team" doesn't have 1/10th of that film's soul, it makes a more-than-effective case for Carnahan as the guy you ask to make your $100 million action movie. He directs the film like he's a 13-year-old in 1985 who was given the resources to make any "A-Team" movie he wants, and the "I don't care if this is how the real world works" exuberance of the action is exactly what makes the movie fun. There's a scene in the middle of the film involving a tank and some fighter jets that exemplifies exactly what this movie's appeal is, and if you don't like that scene, you are not going to like this movie. Either you can enjoy a film where people escape a crashing plane by "flying" a tank, or you can't. I don't think there will be much middle ground on this one.
I saw the film with a largely recruited audience, with only a small press section, and the reactions from the crowd were impressive. They loved all the big beats in the movie, and there was applause when the plan did indeed come together. It seemed to me like this was exactly what that audience wanted after a summer of vague disappointments, a silly Hollywood ride that knows it's a silly Hollywood ride and that isn't remotely embarrassed to be a silly Hollywood ride.
Yes, "The A-Team" is winking so hard at you that it practically strains something.
And in this particular case, that's exactly the right tone for the movie.
I sincerely hope you enjoy this one as much as I did. I don't really feel any burning desire to revisit it anytime soon... once was enough to get it... but it left me smiling for the rest of the day, and in a summer like this one, that is a gift.