The A-Team, the new movie based on Stephen J. Cannell's TV series that aired from 1983 to 1987, was a decade in development, employed at least 11 writers and was supervised by a studio executive who, according to a Nikki Finke report, stirred deep and vocal resentments. Costing more than twice as much as the weekend's other 1980s retread that inspirational ode to pipsqueak power, The Karate Kid it will be lucky to muster half the take of the Jaden SmithJackie Chan weepie. The A-Team was expected to dominate the marketplace, yet it could cadge a gross as low as its artistic ambitions. After Watchmen, Kick-Ass and Prince of Persia, another franchise wannabe bites the dust.
So of course I liked it.
The original was standard Universal TV cheese, with a tantalizing premise. Four Special Service superheroes have been cashiered for a crime they didn't commit; and while they search for the real malefactor they hire themselves out for worthy causes. But the show began after the main event, and didn't resolve the question of who done the Teamies in. (Imagine The Fugitive without Richard Kimble bringing the one-armed man to justice.) Members of the quartet were supposed to personify character extremes: the born leader Hannibal (George Peppard), the ladies' man known as Face (Dirk Benedict), the crazy genius Murdock (Dwight Schultz) and Afro toughie B.A. (Mr. T). Except for the T Man, the group was pretty wan, the action scenes mostly ordinary and the whole series a diversion from the Team's essential mission.
The new version, directed by explosives enthusiast Joe Carnahan, from a script credited to Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods, knows enough to begin with the Team's origins. Eight years before, actually ostensibly to introduce the new A-Team but also to break the 2010 record for most daredevil escapes through flaming buildings. Then it motors at top speed, with a quip and a strut, through some very imaginative set pieces. It won't win any Oscars, but it's only a freakin' movie, Ingrid.
Except for Ultimate Fighting champ Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, who lacks Mr. T's ability to deliver dialogue as if he's spitting frozen peas at a kitten, the new guys are a big improvement on the original A-Team. Liam Neeson lends his massive muscularity to the deadpan mastermind Hannibal. The oleaginous-seducer role of Face makes fine use of Bradley Cooper's weasely good looks and predatory charm. Sharlto Copley, the from-nowhere star of last year's District 9, is a small inspiration as the deranged Murdock. He has more personalities than Sybil, or at least does more impressions of them. And when he grins, he looks like Jim Varney doing Robert De Niro's crazed-rube smile.
The movie proper begins in occupied Iraq (oh, that's why audiences are avoiding the movie), where an old General friend of Hannibal's entrusts him and his men with a secret mission to reclaim a fortune in plates for $100 bills stolen from Saddam Hussein something like that. (These movie supersquadrons are always assigned to the equivalents of bank heists; no one thinks to tell them, "Bring me the head of Osama bin Laden.") When the job is fatally botched, the A quartet is court-martialed and sentenced to jail, where their incarcerations are closely monitored by a straight-shooting Defense Department babe (Jessica Biel) who used to be Face's girl, a CIA preppie named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and a cool assassin, Pike (well played by co-writer Bloom) of the Black Forest mercenary force squint and read: Blackwater which Hannibal calls "assassins in polo shirts."
Each of these entities has an interest in our heroes getting out of jail to locate the hot plates. Locked away in four prisons, the A-listers work their escapes: Hannibal through the trap door of a crematorium, Face in a portable tanning booth, B.A. by being sprung from a bus full of prisoners (the blown-off back door, attached to the Team's getaway vehicle, serves as a highway sled) and Murdock during the showing of a 3-D movie, The Greater Escape: as a truck seems to roar out of the screen, the A-Team breaks through it. It's all a demonstration of Carnahan's law: In an action movie, put all the thoughtfulness and ingenuity into the stunts.
The A-Team has some beauts the best vehicular-mayhem scenes since Live Free or Die Hard three years ago. Give the movie three points for a snazzy helicopter-flying-upside-down escapade (deduct two points if the stunt was CG and not a real pilot risking his life for trash art). Some stunts take about a second, like the one where Face emerges from a manhole just in time to hitch a ride on the underbelly of a truck speeding above him. Others are visual production numbers, as when two guys, hero and villain, rapidly rappel the sides of adjacent skyscrapers. Or when a tank bursts out of a fiery plane and steers its way down safely into a Swiss lake.
By now there's debris from an exploded U.S. Air Force jet landing all over Germany. But in a movie where Gandhi is quoted as being in favor of violence, and where Hannibal's standing order for armaments is "Fire everything!", one needn't speculate overmuch on historical or geopolitical accuracy. This is Mission: Implausible. As technicians, the filmmakers prefer the icy-veined efficiency of Black Forest stormtroopers to the bumbling of CIA desk jockeys trying to be killer studs. Mind you, no one really dies in this picture. It's international carnage, video-game style. "Awesome," Lynch whispers as something else blows up. "That looks exactly like Call of Duty."
The movie has its share of idiocies endemic to the action movie. Stuff gets blown up without any thought of collateral damage. The elite thugs pursuing the Teamies can't shoot straight and, when they get one in point-blank range, botch a kill by boasting at length about how death feels. You could also say the picture lacks a coherent plot and complex characterization, but those are irrelevant to the genre. The movie is like a superior athlete who gets tongue-tied in a post-game interview but on the field is poetry in motion. And hit or flop, The A-Team is the best of show in a mediocre lineup of early-summer action films.