Sunday, January 23, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: The A-Team (2010)

Let's start this review with a useful analogy. 

The 2010 A-Team movie is to the original A-Team television series as the 2009 Star Trek movie was to the original Star Trek series. 

In other words, the A-Team movie is a thorough and dedicated 21st century updating and re-vamping of the familiar franchise with re-cast central roles, but also with -- globally speaking-- an abundant sense of faith and love regarding its television origins and heritage.

In fact, the A-Team movie commences with precisely the right tone of appreciation and nostalgia. 

In a garage in Mexico, B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson) reunites with his beloved 1983 GMC Vandura Van -- an enduring trademark of the original TV series -- and notes, simply, "It's been too long.  Way too long..."

Indeed it has.

 For fans of the A-Team who have missed the popular action series since it was canceled by NBC in the late 1980s, this sentimental touch -- which occurs almost immediately before the van gets unceremoniously crushed in an action scene -- is actually a  love letter of sorts; an acknowledgement of mutually-shared appreciation of that which came before, and which is still honored here.

These are the words I wrote last year, in regards to the original A-Team television series:

"During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1987), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:

Diverting.

Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.

The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth to speak of.

But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of storyline, plot resolution and yeah, physics, but after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably.

There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance."

I might as well have been writing those words about this movie of 2010 vintage. 

Without putting too fine a point on it, director Joe Carnahan's (Narc [2002]) film is pretty much exactly the same thing as my description of the TV series above, save for a slightly less two-dimensional role for the lead female, here Jessica Biel's Captain Sosa. 

Otherwise, you've got the same style of cartoon violence, the same colorful characters, some tremendous stunts, and an overwhelming sense of fun and esprit de corps..   

Are the Laws of Physics violated in the much-complained about falling tank sequence? 

Yes, abundantly so. 

But if you're going to dismiss this particularly movie because of that specific scene, you should be prepared to dismiss as well Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) because of its inflatable raft-as-parachute scene, and Goldeneye (1995) too, for the most Physics-busting shot in James Bond film history: Pierce Brosnan diving after a falling plane in the prologue, catching up to it, climbing in, and flying it out of its death spin.

So yes, there is plenty to nitpick, deride or assail here, particularly if you are seeking a realistic and believable action-thriller.

But if you choose that route; you should at least acknowledge that you are reviewing the movie you wanted to see; and not an A-Team movie. 

Indeed, the film's winking dialogue -- as penned by Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods -- understands immediately the particular universe of this "crack commando team." 

"The A-Team," declares Sosa "specializes in the ridiculous."

I really can't put it much better than that. 

This movie -- like the TV series on which it was based -- specializes in the ridiculous.  You either go with the ridiculousness and get a kick out of the intentional over-the-top nature of it, or you won't enjoy the movie a lick.

The original series was always a low-brow, good-humored variation on Bruce Gellar's Mission: Impossible, and the 2010 movie understands that too. 

Face (Dirk Benedict) was the charmer of the group; Murdock (Dwight Shultz) the pilot; Hannibal (George Peppard) the irrepressible leader, and B.A. (Mr. T) the mechanic.  Together they would combine their skills to save innocent people, all while concocting ridiculous plans like, say, building flame throwers out of hot water heaters and washing machines.  The stories were clearly not as tightly plotted or elaborately constructed as those on Mission:Impossible, but this fact gave The A-Team writers room to let the characters banter and do their funny shtick

That shtick is still famous today. 

Hannibal crunching a cigar and optimistically -- eternally -- noting that he "loves it when a plan comes together." 

Murdock's insane act; a useful insane act which always distracts the enemy at just the right time. 

And then there's Face's sense of vanity and his way with all the ladies. 

And finally there's Bad Attitude Baracus, who really, really, really hates to fly...and must be tricked, cajoled and sedated to fly Murdock's friendly skies.

The movie revives each and every one of these beloved, extremely silly character gimmicks and touchstones, and in the process, provides audiences the origin story of the A-Team. 

The team is framed for a "crime it did not commit," in this case the theft of counterfeit engraver plates in Operation Desert Freedom.  The bad guys are Black Forest mercenaries (think Blackwater) who frame the Team and steal the plates for themselves.  A CIA guy named Lynch (another name you should recognize from the series...) is another heavy, and Patrick Wilson has a ball with the role.

After breaking out of prison, Hannibal (Liam Neeson) must free his friends and concoct a plan to get the engraver plates back, a plan that will --naturally -- involve lots of violence and death-defying stunts.

And on this last front, the movie A-Team -- with a whopping 100 million dollar budget at its command -- offers the goods in the way that a weekly TV series made in the 1980s simply could not afford. 

About mid-way through the film, Carnahan stages a stunning heist sequence at a skyscraper in Frankfurt, with the A Team -- and its opponents too -- plummeting down dozens of stories...all while firing machine guns and launching missiles.

Even truer to the aesthetic of the original series is the film's first major action sequence, which sees the A-Team hijacking a moving convoy in Baghdad to acquire the engraving plates.  The plan involves a magnet, a video camera, and several inflatable air bags.  It's stereotypically an A-Team, Rube-Goldberg affair, and it's a hoot.

Carnahan edits this scene -- and indeed the finale of the film -- as a delicate dance, a ping-pong back and forth between present and future (or is it past and present?), between intention and action.  The gathered team discusses the plan prior to the mission, while we simultaneously cross-cut to the plan in action. 

Now, some critics or audiences might complain that this approach is somehow "spoon feeding" the audience information for clarity, but I would differ about that assessment.  The cross-cutting is just a dazzling, highly visual way of leading us through a particularly byzantine action scene, without laborious exposition telling why, where, and how things are happening. 

In other words, these back-and-forths move at the speed of thought. Hannibal (or Face) proposes, and then we see the proposition happening in real-time, before our eyes. 

And for his final trick, Carnahan throws a monkey wrench into the movie's last shell game: a Black Forest mercentary with a rocket launcher.


Listen, I'm not going to argue that The A-Team is a great movie in any sense of that word, though honesty forces me to admit it is much better, more accomplished affair than last summer's other macho action pic, The Expendables.   Contrarily,  I only argue that The A-Team accomplishes pretty much the same thing that the TV series did on a regular basis. 

It diverts. It generates laughs.  It thrills. 

In other words, this is a faithful and accurate reflection of The A-Team TV series, even if it does not involve helping people in need.  No doubt that aspect of the mythos was being saved for the sequel, following this "origin story."

And I do admire the filmmakers for not transforming the A-Team universe into a brutal, sex-obsessed, angsty, brooding Batman-style world, where everything is ultra-realistic, dark-for-the-sake-of-being-dark, and serious to the point of ennui.  That would have been the easy route.  Instead, this movie -- like the TV series -- is an amusing, blatantly unrealistic lark, fronted by enormously appealing actors playing iconic roles. 

More even that even, I admire how Carnahan's movie attempts to find current day alternatives to bloody murder.  You'll remember how on the original series, cars would turn over and get destroyed in chases, but the bad guys would always crawl out of the wrecks, shake it off, and get back into the game?

Here, Carnahan pitches the film's fiercest battle between the A-Team in flight (on that notorious falling tank...) and two unmanned Reaper Drones.  Hence, the bullets can fly and there's plenty of violence and action.  But just like on the TV series, nobody gets hurt in the ensuing explosions.  Same idea; but new, clever expression.

Again, I'm not championing this storytelling approach as realistic, scientifically-accurate, believable, or even my preferred approach in filmmaking.  Rather I'm championing this storytelling approach as very, very...A-Team like.

If you liked the A-Team TV series and this brand of storytelling, there's no reason in the world you wouldn't enjoy this A-Team movie.  It remembers what made us laugh, gasp and smile about the old TV series, and in the process thoroughly...diverts, to use that word again.

In the end, the A-Team movie is not about a rogue but "valuable military asset," or a realistic "clandestine operation," it's about four larger-than-life characters we love who specialize in the ridiculous.   

If you can get behind that proposition, then this movie really does come together.

9 comments:

  1. I haven't had a chance to see this yet, though more from a logistical standpoint than lack of desire. I'll certainly be correcting that now.

    I like serious, I like in-depth, I like convoluted. But coins have two sides, yes? I loved the series as a kid, and I've always also enjoyed action fare that falls a bit more into the ridiculous. Or to put it another way - material where not only am I willing to suspend disbelief, but where I -want- to, perhaps even in the face of physics itself. Here you go, Physics. Take a coffee break for a couple of hours. You can resume beating me up later.

    Thanks for the honest and insightful review. Can't wait to watch this now.

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  2. Hi Woodchuckgod,

    I am totally in agreement with you on your comment. I like in-depth and serious too, but as you said, a "coin has two sides," and it wouldn't it be boring for all action movies to fit in the very same (strict) mold?

    Seems to me that any movie called "The A Team" should emulate the funny, over-the-top, almost cartoonish approach of the original series, and that's precisely what this movie does.

    No reason not to like it, on the very terms it sets out for itself. You just kind of need to understand those terms going on. Long story short: New A-Team pretty much the same as old A-Team, only with more expensive stunts.

    I love your comment too, to Physics: "Take a coffee break for a couple of hours." :)

    That is awesome...

    All my best,
    John

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  3. Wow, this may be the only positive review I've come across for this film!

    Seriously, I do enjoy a lot of Carnahan's work - even the much-derided SMOKING ACES, which felt like the U.S. answer to Guy Ritchie who was really ripping off Tarantino...

    I think that his best work still remains NARC and I kinda wish he would go back to that. Too bad that his adaptation of James Ellroy's WHITE JAZZ never happened.

    I think the problem I have with this new A-TEAM film and the show is that while I enjoyed it immensely as a kid, it has not aged well. Or, rather, as I've aged, I've lost interest in its cartoon antics. I guess the nostalgia value is just not there for me.

    I certainly don't have a problem with cartoonish violence (see SMOKING ACES) and I would imagine his take on THE A-TEAM really depends on being in the right mood, the right frame of mind to just sit back and let it wash over you in all of it dumb fun glory.

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  4. Hi J.D.,

    Yep, very few, if any critics, liked this movie.

    But I don't mind that (and nor do I covet the role of contrarian...).

    I just have to call 'em as I see 'em, and tell you why I see 'em that way.

    All my arguments are right there in the piece, and they all have to do with the nature of the original property, the A-Team, and how the movie uses that nature to its benefit (or perhaps detriment, given the critical and box office response).

    I also liked NARC very much. I think Carnahan is a good director, actually.

    But the problem with the A-Team, I submit, is that most of the people who reviewed it either don't remember what it was actually like as a TV show, stylistically-speaking, or they plain never watched it.

    If they had, they would have "gotten" (understood) the movie in a way that the reviews indicate most critics simply did not.

    The movie is a really faithful adaptation of the series and its ethos, and thus out of step with the kind of action movies we get today. I submit that many reviewers simply didn't know what to make of it, and chose to deride it and put it down instead of attempting to understand it.

    I'm not saying I'm right and they're wrong. I'm saying I watched the A-Team a lot (which other critics apparently didn't..) and that this movie is a pretty spot-on translation of the TV series, just updated for today.

    My background in cult-TV, in this case, helps me contextualize the movie in a way that other critics, perhaps with other backgrounds, can't. That's not egotistical. There are plenty of movies being made where the opposite would be true. Where I would be the one without context, for example.

    For instance, I have no experience with Avatar: The Last Airbender. Never watched a show. I would not be a good arbiter of whether or not the movie version is faithful.

    You wrote: "I would imagine his take on THE A-TEAM really depends on being in the right mood, the right frame of mind to just sit back and let it wash over you in all of it dumb fun glory."

    That's it EXACTLY.

    If you like the A-Team TV series (which is also the same kind of style), then there's no reason not to like this movie. You just have to understand and know what it is, going in, and roll with the style.

    And believe me, if you can invest yourself in the macho absurdities and cliches of The Expendables, you'll find it not too hard to invest in the A-Team.

    Great comment!

    best,
    John

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  5. You see, this is why you're the right person to take an honest look at this film.

    The fact you mentioned it captured the spirit of the original so to speak is enough for me to give it a shot sometime. It's not high on my list, but I'm glad to read your assessment because it is what I had hoped for.

    I think context is exactly right John and your self-examination on that point is spot on! Anyway, always enjoy the reflections and we always know the product in question will always be given a fair shake.

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  6. Thanks for the wonderful comment (and affirmation), SFF.

    I hope I didn't come off as braggy or egotistical or anything. I was just saying that in this one case, the fact that I watched a LOT of the A-Team (and as recently as last year...) enabled me to see that this might not be a "great" movie, but rather a "Great" A-Team movie.

    I appreciate your kind words, and recommend the movie if you go in with the spirit of the TV series in mind!

    All my best,
    JKM

    I

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  7. I just got hold of the Blu-ray Disc of this (missed it on its theatrical run... likely from all the sniping it took by critics). Definitely looking forward to it now after reading your review, John. I really need more time in the day to catch up with all I want to right now. Thanks for this.

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  8. Just took this in, and I honestly enjoyed the hell out of it. As much as I enjoyed THE EXPENDABLES, I thought the use of humor (self-deprecating, at times) and action might have been finer here. I agree with a lot that you have to say about it in your review, John. Thanks.

    p.s., I watched the theatrical cut today. Later this year, I'll give the extended cut a whirl.

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  9. Hi Le0pard13:

    I'm so glad you saw the film. I agree with you that the humor and action quotient is superior to The Expendables. I thought the A-Team was a heck of a lot of fun, and I'm glad you also enjoyed the hell out of it.

    thanks for the comment,

    jKM

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