In a summer of loud and mostly dumb movies, Joe Carnahan’s ‘A-Team’ is potentially the loudest and the dumbest, with the surprise hat trick of also being deliriously fun. That’s right, a mega-budget, popcorn actioner based off a terribly dippy 80’s television show actually delivers the summer fun.
Color me surprised to find an energetic cast playing up comic absurdity in a movie that feels like a pure collage of action scenes. Although, if I had truly be intuitive, I would have taken the hints from that ludicrous bit in the trailer where ‘Face’ (Cooper) is behind the controls of a tank that just fell from a plane, firing at enemy jet fighters headed his way. You look at that and either furrow your brow in determined seriousness, or you smile and chuckle. Carnahan somehow manages to sustain the bug-nuttiness of that sequence for nearly the entire duration of ‘A-Team’ and if you are the right kind of person, it will hit your pleasure centers pretty hard.
The film’s basic set-up isn’t exactly a narrative as much as it is a lifted template from the original television show, changing the origin of the team from Vietnam veterans to a commando unit who has just been framed for theft, and by extension, murder. If the plot sounds similar to this year’s earlier ‘The Losers’, then that’s because it’s largely the same one, even going so far as to feature a villainous CIA agent like Jason Patric’s Max.
The difference is down to emphasis. I enjoyed The Losers because of the way it pulled its cast together and allowed them to carry the film through the innate silliness in the story. A-Team is more interested in blocking off its stars as individual caricatures and piling on as many action scenes as one movie can contain, and to heck with pesky things like continuity, logistics or even gravity.
The thing is, that’s exactly the right choice for a movie based off The A Team. This isn’t a calculated spoof of the material, or a serious-minded revamp of something that didn’t take itself serious in the first place. Instead, this is literally a bigger, beefier, more expansive version of the thing that used to roll across our television sets back in the mid 80s. There are insane aerial stunts involving every kind of vehicle or transport imaginable, and half the time it also involves characters flying through the air like torpedoes, aimed at enemies who only exist to fire bullets at them. Carnahan uses a cinematography style that echoes Tony Scott, but here the erratic nature of the camera work only adds to the visual chaos up on screen.
The casting and acting in the film is what’s most likely to pull in the audience this weekend. I didn’t know what to make of the varied cast up front, but they all work in their respective places, and make this ‘A Team’ endearing enough that we aren’t looking back 20 years, comparing them, or simply dismissing them as we wait for Stallone and The Expendables to show up in Augst. Liam Neeson as ‘Hannibal’, the gang’s cigar chomping, surly leader, is still channeling that focused grit that he displayed in last year’s Taken. I was bored with him in April’s Clash of the Titans remake, but the Neeson here has brought his a-game, and he makes each line the character says and every thing he does feel sort of iconic and even plausible in a certain way.
It’s odd to see him sleepwalk through stuff like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and Kingdom of Heaven, and then come alive here. Nonetheless, he provides the gravitas needed to be the leader, and he centers the team, so that the other guys can do their thing as needed. Sharlto Copely is proving that he’s got more where District 9 came from, and although this is a completely different kind of character in a completely different movie, he approaches it with intention and invention. ‘Mad Dog’ Murdock is the loose, loose cannon of the team, and their pilot. Copley imbues him with a deep, squirming sense of nuttiness and he never feels perfunctory (although his character is certainly written as such) or predictable. I kept expecting Mad Dog to go off, muttering to himself, into the stratosphere and never return. Looking back on it, I think that was exactly the thing Copley was going for.
The last two members of the team, Face and B.A. Barracus, are probably the ‘highlight’ members of the group. Not so much because they bring extra epertise or more to the table acting-wise, but because in the original, their characters were the added flair that kept audiences tuning in. As it turns out, this version pushes Face to the foreground, probably because he’s Bradley Cooper and the universe has preordained that he become a star. For his part, Cooper isn’t doing much different than he’s done before, but Carnhan has a sense of how to use him, and he’s never grating. Quentin ‘Rampage’ Jackson, coming out of a fighter’s background, has to match the acting chops of Mr. T, which is admittedly, not hard. He does this, but he goes a bit further too. Jackson doesn’t have the experience of an actor, but he does understand showmanship, and he’s got that here. He’s not mugging for the camera or trying to steal the show. Instead he puts forth a gruff, likable performance that suggests he could, in the right circumstances, headline his own action picture.
Although this team isn’t meshing together as a whole, that doesn’t affect the film much. Most of the picture feels disjointed, so if we find ourselves shuffled among the main players as if being flung through the panels of a comic book, it’s never too disorienting. Truth be told, disorienting is actually something that A-Team seems to be actively aiming for.
In a summer that seems dead-set on reducing entertainments to their most pragmatic and mundane, I sortof cherished the insanity of A-Team, and I wasn’t even terribly disturbed by the fact that the plan at the center of the ‘story’ doesn’t make much sense. It’s been awhile since we have seen a director pull out big budget toys in service of a premise this bonkers. I’d cite last summer’s G.I. Joe, but even there, Sommers kept reminding us it all took place in a cartoon universe. There’s no denying that here, but Carnahan doesn’t have any signposts to inform you ‘Prepare for silliness’. He just opens up both barrels and lets you have it.