MOVIE REVIEW: The A-Team
THE A-TEAM-- 4 STARS
Let's face it, familiarity and nostalgia sells, and we all fall for it. Just take a look at the number of remakes, sequels, prequels, and endless TV/comic adaptations that score at the box office every year. Last year alone, in 2009, we saw Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes reboots, a motion-capture animated A Christmas Carol, an imaginative Where the Wild Things Are make a two-hour movie out of a 48-page children's book, Terminator and X-Men franchise prequel projects, Transformers and Alvin and the Chipmunks sequels, and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra rake in millions upon billions.
Even the Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds, from savvy writing genius Quentin Tarantino, is a loose remake of an older film, and shows that even he runs out of ideas. Some franchises, like Star Trek and also James Bond, have even been restarted, "reinvented," "reimagined," or re-whatever TWICE now over the years.
To me, that trend exposes two things. First, audiences remember their youth and will blindly embrace their favorites. That creates a built-in audience and buzz that will bring their $9.50 to the box office, without fail, just to see if the new result is good or bad. The attachment and curiosity factor is too great for them to say no. The second is simply the greed of studios to milk a hit to death. That greed to pump out more and more ends up killing every single franchise... ever! Did we really need The Son of the Mask or Batman & Robin or even a new prequel Star Wars trilogy? Something tells me we won't need the Spider-Man reboot or Monopoly and Battleship board game movies rumored to be coming in the next few years.
When it comes toThe A-Team, one of two 80's remakes at the box office this weekend (to go with The Karate Kid, which smoked it at the box office), I must admit that I am the kind of guy that falls for that first trend I mentioned of blindly following the favorites of my youth. As a kid, I loved The A-Team TV show for all of its over-the-top action and destruction. My little brother and I ran around our living room with non-orange-tipped plastic machine guns and crashed cars. On the show, no one ever got killed and the good guys always beat up the bad guys and won in spectacular, hammy, and ridiculous fashion. Between The A-Team, Knight Rider, and The Dukes of Hazzard, they truly don't make kid-friendly primetime action TV shows like that anymore.
The movie takes the TV show and goes for the reboot/modernization/origin story that's becoming the go-to route of remakes (Starsky & Hutch, Charlie's Angels), reboots (Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek) and franchise start-ups (Transformers, G.I. Joe). Instead of a formulaic episode of the wrongly-accused mercenary team of Vietnam veterans helping people in need, we get the story of how the team of Army Rangers was formed before they ever became fugitive men for hire. Vietnam and the pre-internet and pre-cellular 80's are traded for Iraq and 21st century toys.
The film opens in Mexico, where master strategist Colonel "Hannibal" Smith (Academy Award nominee and go-to movie mentor actor Liam Neeson) and his smooth-talking con-man partner, Lieutenant Templeton "Faceman" Peck (The Hangover's Bradly Cooper), are escaping back to the states after working undercover to expose police and military corruption. They are aided in their escape along the way by recruited fellow Rangers, driver-strongman Sergeant Bosco "B.A." Baracus (UFC light heavyweight Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) and ace helicopter pilot Captain H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock (newcomer Sharlto Copley from District 9) in naturally wild circumstances. That victory starts eight years of successful special ops together as a top-notch clandestine team, led by Smith, who always has a plan that comes together.
We meet them again in Iraq working for General Morrison (80's Major Dad TV relic Gerald McRaney) where they lobby to take on an off-the-books, ultrasecret mission to retrieve U.S Treasury printing plates and $1 billion dollars in counterfeit cash before they leave Baghdad. The mission goes sour upon their return to base where they are framed and detained for trying to steal the plates and cash for themselves. All four of our team are tried, convicted, dishonorably discharged, and end up in different maximum security military prisons. In true A-Team fashion, they break each other out in the quest to clear their names and get their careers back. Their manhunt attracts the attention of the CIA agent (Patrick Wilson of Watchmen) who set the treasury plate job up and Captain Charissa Sosa (eye-candy Jessica Biel) of the Department of Defense who was held responsible for the mission's failure of reacquiring the plates, and is a former flame of Face. All sides chase and collide in trying to keep the treasury plates from falling into the wrong hands and evading capture.
The movie and Smokin' Aces director Joe Carnahan amp up the signature action of the original series in every way possible. Instead of the same staged Hollywood car flips and rolls, we get parachuting tanks. Instead of badly reused helicopter stock footage from cop shows, we have the power of CGI effects. Despite the overused style of queasy-shaky action camera shots and choppy, hypercutted editing that's been an unfortunate action movie standard since Michael Bay made it cool over a decade ago, all of it creates and absolute blast of a movie experience! Sure, the action may be physically and mechanically preposterous, but that's the point and that over-the-top spirit matches the B-movie style of the original show perfectly.
Where a lot of remakes and adaptations fail to win over audiences and fans is the casting. Most people can't shake the image of their beloved original actors and the characters they fleshed out and created. They can't let go or picture anyone else in those roles and go on to hate the new movies. At the same time, the new actor or actress is inevitably going to be compared (as a reviewer and fan, I have to), likely unfairly, to his or her predecessor. Just look at the hit-or-miss actors that have tried to follow Sean Connery as James Bond over the years or anyone in the future who will attempt to replace/reinvent the deceased Heath Ledger as The Joker.
To assess the casting, one has to first realize the changes that come from modernizing an old idea and give the actors a chance to make the character their own, while still paying homage to the original. As an example, look how scrutinized last year's Star Trek was with its largely unknown cast and how they either channeled, imitated, or went outside the box with their portrayals of legendary characters. The A-Team does just that in keeping the original flair, but with a far more modern agenda. This movie is being made while the U.S. in engaged in two wars and with a PG-13/nearly R-rating in mind.
Gone is the zero body count of the happy 80's TV show. Wisecracks are splashed with profanity and a great acronym to replace "Alpha Mike Foxtrot" in the military alphabet. Also, you have to remember that this is an origin story. The characters are just now "becoming" the people we all remember and love, and are not complete yet. They are portrayed as works in progress on purpose.
Keeping that in mind, The A-Team wins points for inspired and creative casting. As a fan, it scores a 50% of 2-out-of-4. Bradley Cooper is every bit, if not more, charismatic than Dirk Benedict ever was. Sharlto Copley channels the nut-job personality that Dwight Schultz did so well. (On a sidenote, both of those original actors have post-credits cameos in the film.) The iffy two are Liam Neeson and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. The TV "Hannibal" is a smiling, often-disguised, cigar-smoking frontman with all of the good lines, as embodied by the late George Peppard. Liam Neeson brings his Taken stern and intimidating look to the part that you will either love for being intense and modern or hate for not being fun enough. For me, I kind of always wanted Bruce Willis at his age and sarcastic craftiness to play that part. As for B.A., I don't think anyone could follow the iconic bad-ass attitude created by Mr. T. with just his scowl and growl alone. While Jackson sure looks and plays the part physically, he's a non-actor who doesn't have close to the screen presence of Mr. T.
Nonetheless, critiquing aside, The A-Team will likely be the most action-packed movie you will see this summer. I think it surpasses Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood in the thrills department and I am confident it will be more fun and satisfying than wimpy, brooding teenage wolves and vampires coming soon in Twilight: Eclipse. The plan was to make a summer roller coaster ride of modernizing a piece of fun nostalgia for a new audience, and we "love it when a plan comes together." Alpha Mike Foxtrot, everyone!
LESSON #1: GOOD STRATEGIC PLANNING IS BETTER THAN IMPROVISATION-- Like the signature Hannibal Smith catchphrase, planning for every contingency and executing that plan without deviation makes for very effective results. While being improvisational like a jazz musician or John McClane can be fun and necessary at times, a well thought-out plan will get the job done better every time. You'll love the results, too.
LESSON #2: LOYALTY IS KEY TO EVERY GOOD TEAM-- Regardless of whether you are talking about an office work group, the New York Yankees, or clandestine military specialists, loyalty is a key component to every team. If you trust the man next you and they trust you, your combined efforts will bear fruit. Loyalty to always support your team in need is also paramount in this lesson.
LESSON #3: MISDIRECTION IS AN EFFECTIVE STRATEGY-- Like every good A-Team episode and plan, a little dash of misdirection can make up for being in situations when it's 20 against 4. Liam Neeson knows this well as the "Theatricality and deception are powerful agents" mentor from Batman Begins. This team of men nails this lesson.
LESSON #4: BE CAREFUL WHO YOU TRY TO FRAME AND BETRAY-- Choose your opponent wisely. Do you really want the guy from Taken, a UFC cagefighter, a clinically crazy pilot, and a smooth operator from The Hangover coming after you armed and dangerous with a score to settle? You mess with the best, you'll get beat by the best. Nice try, Blackwater and CIA clowns!