We live in this age where the powers that be at movie studios are paralyzed with fear at the idea of making a big budget production that isn’t based upon some pre-existing property. Actually, they’re even afraid of making small or medium-sized films that aren’t based on something that already exists. Originality is good and all, but it doesn’t have brand recognition. Just typing those words caused my lunch to creep up my esophagus before settling back down. While it may be easy to think that just because people know what something is doesn’t mean they’re more inclined to see it. There’s a level of fatigue that sets in when yet another property from the ‘80s is refashioned for the big screen. As we’ve seen with 21 Jump Street, sometimes swimming in the pool of low expectations can yield surprising results. I certainly wouldn’t say the Joe Carnahan’s 2010 adaptation of The A-Team is working on the level of 21 Jump Street, but it’s a more than entertaining action romp. The cool reception that the film received is a byproduct of the cynicism from studio laziness, even though Carnahan snuck a clever action movie through the sometimes oppressive studio system.
The A-Team ran for 5 season, wrapping up its run in 1987. Throughout the ‘90s and ‘00s, there were attempts to get a movie version of the series made. At one point, John Singleton was attached to direct with Ice Cube ready to take the role of B.A. Baracus. But when it did finally go into production, director Joe Carnahan assembled a damn fine cast. Featuring rejuvenated action star Liam Neeson as Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, Bradley Cooper as Lt. Templeton “Face” Peck, Sharlto Copley as Captain H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as B.A. Baracus, the role made famous by Mr. T., Carnahan’s film takes plenty of liberties with the formula of the series, and it’s a welcome departure as it allows the film to feel somewhat fresh even though it is repurposing something from the past.
Featuring a twenty minute opening sequence that assembles the team for the very first time, The A-Team is assembled in Mexico during a chaotic rescue operation. Years later, the crew is aiding the forces in Iraq. With a couple of plates used by the mint to print US dollars floating around in the wrong hands, CIA liason Lynch (Patrick Wilson) assigns Hannibal and his men an operation to retrieve the plates. With their mission at first successful, it all goes to hell when they return and are sabotaged by Brock Pike (Brian Bloom), who works for a private security firm Black Forest, who absconds with the plates and leaves the A-Team’s commanding officer General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) dead. The A-Team is then court marshalled, dishonorably discharged, and placed in prison. Before long, though, Lynch arrives and aids Hannibal’s escape in exchange for his help in retrieving the plates. From there, Hannibal busts out each member of his team and now they must unravel the conspiracy that left them disgraced fugitives while eluding Charissa Sosa (Jessica Biel), Face’s ex-girlfriend and investigator for the Department of Defense.
Anyone going into The A-Team with the expectations of stark realism is bound to be disappointed. Realism is overrated anyways. The film does feature a number of implausible but thrilling action set pieces. One sequence that relishes in its absurdist action is when the team is forced to eject themselves from a plane in tank. Drones circling around them, firing at every available opportunity, they must fire massive shells from the tank to shift the direction of the falling mass of steel. The sequence is unashamed of its silliness, which only makes it all the more fun until it finally comes splashing down in the water. Carnahan has an assorted bag of tricks in his action staging that he employs throughout the film. An early hand-to-hand fight with B.A. and a gang of bad guys blends visual chaos and coherence for maximum effect. The team’s attempt to regain possession of the plates is also exhilarating and over the top. Most of all, the finale is a very clever sequence, where Face is narrating the caveats of the plan while we see them unfold on screen. It’s a sequence of misdirection that works on the characters onscreen as well as the audience.
For the most part the actors all avail themselves well. The A-Team is another example of Liam Neeson knowing just the right level of toughness to bring into action work. Bradley Cooper brings that playboy demeanor that has elevated him into the realm of the world’s biggest movie stars. Really, The A-Team is also a sad reminder of the wasted potential of Sharlto Copley. After breaking out with District 9, the South African actor hasn’t had a chance to highlight his skills since the role of Murdock. As a matter of fact, Copley’s stock has fallen because he was so bad in movies like Elysium. The only weak link of the cast is Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. The MMA fighter turned actor just doesn’t have the chops to be convincing onscreen. He’s not a massive embarrassment, but he’s surrounded by actors working on a higher level than him. It is not surprising that Jackson returned to fighting.
The A-Team isn’t a great action movie, but it doesn’t live down to expectations. It’s just a fun genre film. The filmography of Joe Carnahan is kind of up and down. I didn’t care much for his latest film Stretch, but his prior film, reteaming him with Liam Neeson, The Grey was a smart subversion of the hyper-masculinity that usually define Carnahan’s films. The A-Team works because it has fun action set pieces, some witty banter, and solid performances from its leads. It also doesn’t hurt that the cinematography by Mauro Fiore is lush and gorgeous. Our natural inclination is to view any of these numerous retreads with a certain skepticism, and that’s more than appropriate. Hopefully that skepticism keeps filmmakers on their toes, trying to do something different with the familiar. That was Carnahan’s plan with The A-Team. I love it when a plan comes together.