Monday, 20 June 2011

The A-Team (2010)

THERE IS NO PLAN B

For those of you that don’t know, The A-Team was a television series back in the 1980s.  It ran from 1983 to 1986 and, pretty much from the beginning, it was hit. It was then and remains today hugely popular, so a big screen adaptation was always on the cards. It rested in Development Hell for years, with dozens of attempts at scripting it and names being constantly attached to the project, either to star in or direct. Eventually, the film was finally written, cast, shot and released in 2010. The irony was that this just happened to be the same year as other summer movies that were in a similar vein (big action flicks centred around a bad-ass military outfit) - The Losers, The Expendables and Red.

An elite team of Army rangers in Iraq are arrested and imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit. The four escape from their respective prisons and try to clear their name and find out who was really responsible.

(Yeah, I know I could have just written the intro from the TV show, but what you gonna do?)

After the multitude of names that were set to direct this film, the job eventually went to Joe Carnahan, whose previous efforts include Narc (which is very good) and Smokin’ Aces (which is not so much). Carnahan would actually be helping to script the project too, alongside Brian Bloom (first time writer) and Skip Woods (whose record is rather spotty). Something I rather enjoyed about The A-Team was that it seemed to be made as a film that would fit rather comfortably into the Carnahan’s established style rather than him just serving as a jobbing director on big budget action flick. As such, whether for better or worse, there’s more of Carnahan in the project, making it feel less generic.

Another thing I rather appreciated about the film was its tone. Given the rather cheesy 80s Saturday evening TV action nature of the source material, this film could have followed suit and been a waste of everyone’s time. Instead, what we’ve got is a film that does take its chances by distancing itself from the material, whilst still keeping the same spirit of fun about it all. The story is perhaps needlessly complicated, but The A-Team was never about the story. What made the whole endeavour fun was that, even though the initial problem was always rather simple, the guys would always tackle it in an interesting and frankly ridiculous manner, simply because they could. They’d fashion themselves a plan because they enjoyed the challenge… and they loved it when the plan came together.

Now, if there is one factor that was of utmost importance for this film, it’s the casting. The biggest asset the original TV series had going for it was its four very memorable lead characters, so it was vital to get them right here. If they screwed this up, the best script and director in the world wouldn’t have saved it. However, they did a fine job.

Liam Neeson had managed to reinvent his screen persona just prior to this, so it wasn’t really too much of a shock for the role of team leader John ‘Hannibal’ Smith to be played by Oskar Schindler. Neeson’s better-known roles have shown him as a man of intelligence and poise, and when Taken came out in 2008, he was able to showcase his aptitude for physicality, even brutality. In The A-Team, he brings these two aspects together, but manages to avoid the occasionally off-putting arrogance that marked the TV series’ incarnation. He still takes a great sense of pride in himself and his ability to outthink his opponent, but he takes more pride in his team and how they work together.

If there’s one thing that defines Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck, it’s his incredibly confident swagger. Effectively the conman of the group, Faceman relies on his ability to talk virtually anyone into virtually anything… and Bradley Cooper absolutely nails this. Certainly a good looking guy, and very aware of it, Cooper just exudes the kind of sharp-minded confidence that allows him to be the guy who is able to just laugh off the punches, bullets and death threats because he knows he can always get himself out of it. There is also a real spark of chemistry between him and Hannibal, totally selling a kind of comrades-in-arms relationship they’ve built up over the years.

One of the most cherished of characters from The A-Team is the batshit crazy pilot, H.M. ‘Howling Mad’ Murdoch. The thing that was great about Murdoch was that no matter how crazy he got, they were always in safe hands with him flying. And more to the point, he was never annoying in his zaniness. Sharlto Copley was, before 2009, basically unknown. Then District 9 came out and everyone wanted a piece of him. Like Cooper as Faceman, Copley’s Murdoch is bang on. Every time you look at him, he seems on the brink of cackling like a madman, but he manages to do so without compromising himself in the moments of sincerity. For all the swirling mania and goofing around, it’s the odd moments of clarity that really sell Murdoch.

B.A. Baracus was always going to be a tough one, though. I mean, Mr. T. is famous the world over through sheer force of personality and with the jewellery and the gruff voice and gruffer nature, he’s an incredibly tough act to follow. Numerous names were suggested for the part, but it ultimately went to MMA star and Ultimate Fighter Quinton Jackson, aka Rampage Jackson. Kind of a left-field choice (Jackson’s few acting credits before this had him playing either himself or some version of himself), there was a fair amount of hesitance as to whether or not this was really the right way to go. To be honest, Jackson is the weakest of the four, but that’s no great surprise considering who he’s up against. Neither is he a complete misfire. He certainly captures the physical side of B.A. The bit that lets it down is more to do with the character as written, especially tough for an inexperienced actor. B.A. is given a development that feels like a departure from the character for the sake of departure, or more likely to allow for a big moment at the film’s climax. As such, Jackson struggles with the clunkier moments onscreen, but he’s not really to blame.

The rest of the cast serve out actually pretty well, for the most part. Jessica Biel is actually pretty solid in what is a rather thankless task as the film’s lone female, Charissa Sosa. She’s no Sam Gerard, but she’s got enough of a no-nonsense attitude to her job that she can hold her own against Cooper. Patrick Wilson also does well as Agent Lynch, a kind of mirror image of Faceman, who comes across more as an arrogant slimeball than a confident charmer. After that, things go down a bit. Brian Bloom (also co-writer) as Brock Pike is pretty much just a licensed, gun-toting bully and Gerald McRaney’s General Morrison spends most of his time looking kind of sheepish.

It’s true that there are some problems with the film. The script, in an attempt to establish that this is an origin story, is burdened with quite a few heavy-handed lines and rough spots of dialogue. For example, when Hannibal and B.A. first meet and Hannibal shoots him in the arm, B.A. cries out, “You shoot a complete stranger? I don’t even know you, fool!” Yes, we get it, you haven’t met before. Even then, it opens a weird line of enquiry. Does B.A. advocate only shooting people that you know? If they had met before, would it be okay for Hannibal to shoot him? Should shooting only occur when it’s not actually necessary?

Primarily, though, it’s that there’s no big bad amongst the villains that really is the big problem. The team seem to be more fighting the injustice perpetrated against them, and that’s fine, but we need a mastermind pulling all the strings to make this more engaging. Without a face to put to the villainy, they’re just fighting a concept, an abstract and no amount of firepower can really go against that. That being said, it’s quite clear that they were setting this main villain up for the next chapter.

As it is, despite a readiness from all the cast to reprise their roles for a sequel, a lacklustre showing at the box office (not to mention a pretty harsh critical reaction) meant that any plans for a sequel were scrapped. I’m of two minds on this. On one side, there’s every chance that they could have royally screwed a follow-up in any number of ways; though the other hand, I would have loved to see the team back together again. As it is, at least for myself, I’m happy with the one film we managed to get out of it.

I’m not going to lie… I really love The A-Team. It’s big, it’s noisy, the cast do a great job and, above all, it’s fun. Carnahan and co. managed to do a fine job in updating things and making it a bit tougher, but still kept the manic sense of fun in it all. It’s not a perfect movie, of course, but for the likes of escapist action entertainment, The A-Team is a damn good watch.

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