June 12, 2010

The A-Team (06/12/10)

Lettergrade: C+ish

This new A-Team movie is indeed big and dumb, and gleefully ignores (as Roger Ebert eloquently pointed out) every law of physics that we've got. Nevertheless, I'll give it some slack for being a better movie than I thought it would be, and for casting actors that I enjoyed watching. The plot they've assembled to participate in is, of course, patently ludicrous, making the storyline of the first Mission: Impossible movie seem cohesive and simplistic by comparison. The style is a sort of Michael Bay light. The camera work is mostly handheld and all over the place (but not too bad, really), and the editing is frenetic, but only nonsensical whenever an action scene is going on. The picture as whole veers a little more toward "bland" than "bad," and I found it to be a somewhat pleasant surprise in this, one of the least interesting movie summers that I can remember.

The movie's prologue features the usual origin story / "assembling the team" schtick that most remakes of old TV shows go for. We start in Mexico where Hannibal Smith (played by the semi-conscious Liam Neeson, donning Leslie Niesen hair and a Groucho Marks cigar), is working some kind of military operation with the impeccably manscaped Lt. Templeton 'Faceman' Peck (Bradley Cooper). On his way to bail his ass out of a tight spot, Hannibal very randomly meets yet another Army Ranger (or whatever their unit is called) named B.A. Baracus, here portrayed by classically trained Shakespearian actor and Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson. There's a really fucked up scene in Rampage's van where Neeson gets all Qui-Gon on him and goes on and on about how their meeting was not a coincidence but the will of the Force or something like that. Based on that, Baracus agrees to help him. In the European version, this moment is reportedly heavily modeled after his scenes with Peter Sarsgaard in Kinsey, so we North Americans really dodged a bullet.

Anyway, after a preposterous action sequence where the van unrealistically jumps over stuff while lots of things simultaneously blow up, the trio winds up at an army hospital near the border where they recruit a fourth Army Ranger (H.M. 'Howlin' Mad' Murdock... perfectly played by District 9's Sharlto Copley) to help them hijack the hospital's only helicopter and fly them the fuck outta there before the pissed off Mexicans arrive. Not sure what a US army hospital is doing in Mexico, but whatever.

8 years later, after the opening credits, the four have formed a cohesive squad that pulls off crazy missions that the rest of the US military can't, apparently (sort of an "Alpha Unit," if you will). They're in Iraq, not long after the fall of Saddam, and are double crossed while on a mission to retrieve some printer plates that were being used by the Iraqis to counterfeit 100 dollar bills and devalue the US dollar. They're promptly tried in a military court, and sent to the slammer for crimes that they didn't commit. This is followed by ANOTHER sequence in which all the guys break out (or are broken out) of their maximum security prisons and engage in YET ANOTHER "ROUND-UP" SEQUENCE THAT IS VERY SIMILAR TO THE ONE THAT WE SAW ONLY 25 MINUTES EARLIER.

I won't bother trying to describe the rest of the plot because frankly I didn't understand much of it. There are various governmental agents involved who all look like eachother and who are all double-crossing one another. At various points during the movie, you think each of them is dead, but then it turns out that they're not. Jessica Biel is another governmental agent because the movie needed a hot woman in it. Fine.

The action scenes require a suspension of disbelief in order to tolerate. The team often figures out complex geometrical equations on the fly and relies heavily on luck and coincidence in order for them to come off without a hitch (which, come to think of it, they always happen to). Consider a scene where the gang is shot at whilst in a military plane: The plane is going down, so they get into a tank, drive the tank out of the plane, and then fire the tank's weapons in specific directions in order to guide it into a lake right next to the Ricola mountains in Switzerland. Even more amusing is Biel's nonchalant reaction to all this while monitoring from a control room.

I have two more comments before laying this one to rest. One is editing based: Many times during the film, someone (usually Neeson) lays out a very detailed plan that is intercut with glimpses of the team actually doing it later. Something about it felt extremely off-putting and confusing to me, and I'm not sure the filmmakers found the right way to distribute that information to the audience.

The other is that this is one of those remakes that could have easily been just another action movie that wasn't called "The A-Team" at all. They got away from the spirit of the show a little (TV's Team there was more about helping people with local problems, not fending off international counterfeiting rings or whatever the hell else is happening in this one), and therefore it rankles me that this is not an attempt to rekindle the characters or celebrate the source material as much as it was a business decision to market a standard action movie that has a familiar name on it, hopefully resulting in better ticket sales.

This is something that I've been thinking a lot about lately. Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible movies, for example, have virtually nothing to do with the TV series, other than the general premise of an American spy pulling off tough missions. In fact, the three movies (and counting) don't even seem to resemble eachother much. On the show, it was more about the team working together to pull off something, dare I say it, impossible, whereas the films frequently kill off Cruise's team early on, and he spends the rest of the movie as a one-man wrecking machine who ends geoterrorism single-handedly (or at least until a another film is green-lit by the studio).

The A-Team does makes frequent nods to the show (the hairstyles, the frequent inclusion of Mr. T's trademark "fool" in much of Rampage's dialogue, etc.), but all in all it doesn't really evoke the memory of it much. It's perfectly decent summer movie fare on its own, you understand, but it also feels a little bit like it was assembled in a Hollywood test kitchen. Director Joe Carnahan was actually supposed to write and direct a Mission: Impossible movie himself at one point, and a couple times during the movie I found myself wondering if that picture would have been nearly identicle to this, but with Cruise's character in the Neeson role, Ving Rhames's M:I persona substituted for the Mr. T part, and someone like French Stewart as a Murdock equivalent, grafted in for comic relief. I guess we'll never know...

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