TBTS Reviews: The A-Team
Just to get this out of the way, for those readers too young to remember (get off my lawn!), The A-Team was a television show in the 1980’s about four military fugitives (“wanted for a crime they didn’t commit”). They gallivanted (or possibly traipsed) across the countryside as mercenaries in a sufficiently badass custom van, helping the helpless, befriending the friendless, and defeating the . . . defeatless. Hannibal Smith, the group’s leader, grinning over blueprints and makeshift dioramas with his ever-present cigar, was played with almost manic confidence by George Peppard. Templeton “Faceman” (or simply “Face”) Peck was the team’s con man, played by the preternaturally tan Dirk Benedict, fresh from a stint on the original Battlestar Galactica. Face was a master of sleight-of-hand; good-looking and charming enough to talk his way out of any situation (or any lady out of her undergarments.) The team’s pilot and generally techy guy was “Howling Mad” Murdock, played by Dwight Schultz. Murdock was certifiably insane, but an excellent helicopter/airplane pilot. He was also a major source of comic relief and a general foil for B.A. Baracus, the team’s mechanic and weapons guy, played by the incomparable Mr.T. (The “B.A.” stood for Bad Attitude, not Bachelor of Arts, in case you were wondering.)
The first 20 minutes of this year’s silver screen adaptation, The A-Team, is a microcosm (or synecdoche, for all you literary types) of the entire movie. Each character is introduced doing whatever it is they do best, and what they will continue to do for the rest of the movie. Hannibal, played here by Liam Neeson (who appears to have gained about 30 pounds since I last saw him in the excellent Taken) has planned the daring rescue of (Bradley Cooper’s) Faceman from an unspecified Mexican generalissimo. Meanwhile, B.A., played by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson (some Ultimate Fighting Championship guy I’d never heard of until this movie came out) beats up a bunch of guys and retrieves his prized custom van. B.A. and Hannibal team up to rescue Face, and then proceed to the local psychiatric hospital to recruit Murdock (District 9‘s Sharlto Copley), who helps them escape in a beat up ambulance helicopter.
This first 20 minutes features several explosions and physics-defying helicopter shenanigans. B.A. yells at Murdock, who remains blithely unaware of how dangerous his behavior is. Face tries to be the voice of reason while Hannibal just grins his way through every near-death scenario. After this introductory explodathon, the movie fast-forwards 8 years, establishes the “crime” for which our heroes are framed, the method by which they will attempt to clear their names, the motivation of the bad guys (including at least one red herring), and Face’s love interest (played by Jessica Biel.)
There is a self-awareness peppered across the sillier action sequences, as though the point is not to be hyper-accurate, but to just have fun with it. (It’s the A-Team!) The utter dismissal of many of the laws of physics would be laughable in most other movies, but it works here. The action sequences are fantastic (in the most literal sense); at no time is the audience meant to believe that stuff like this is possible, yet it remains thoroughly entertaining. For example, the team manages to “fly” an air-dropped tank toward a potentially softer landing by firing the cannon in the opposite direction. This ends up being a lot more exciting (and yes, funnier) than it sounds.
Contributing further to the high overall quality of this movie is the top-shelf cast. Though I was skeptical when some of the casting decisions were announced, Liam Neeson does an excellent turn as Hannibal, and Bradley Cooper is easily as slick and beguiling as Dirk Benedict ever was. Replacing such a unique personage as Mr.T in the B.A. Baracus role would intimidate any casting director, but “Rampage” Jackson did a fine job, especially (and surprisingly) in his few dramatic scenes. Patrick Wilson (Watchmen‘s Nite Owl) drips with hubris as the shifty CIA agent on the team’s trail.
However, it is Sharlto Copley’s “Mad” Murdock that is the stand-out performance. I loved Copley in District 9, and was surprised to hear that it was his first acting role. Here he one-ups himself as he hides his South African accent under layers of unidentifiable, vaguely-Texan dialect and plays Murdock with frenzied relish and flawless comic timing. His one-liners and improvised, rambling chatter had me roaring. In an obligatory montage scene, in what is perhaps my favorite bit in the movie, Murdock paints his face blue and affects a side-splittingly hilarious Braveheart spoof. It’s only 3-5 seconds of screen time, but I could watch it over and over again.
My good friend and fellow Tweedster Mark once paraphrased for me John Updike’s five rules for reviewing books. Number 1 is “try to understand what the author wished to do, and do not blame him for not achieving what he did not attempt.” This simple instruction encompasses the bulk of what can be said about The A-Team. The movie attempted nothing more than bringing a larger than life 80’s fantasy to the big screen. By combining a great biff-bang-pow screenplay with conscientious casting, the filmmakers have easily achieved what they set out to do. (And I daresay they did a damn sight better than G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra.)
Catch it in theaters while you can (it was released June 11). If not, come on over to my place when it comes out on Blu-ray, as I will definitely be purchasing a copy.