Convoluted mess with clever casting

Posted: Thursday, June 17, 2010

"The A-Team"

Dune Entertainment

1 hour, 57 minutes

You wouldn't think it would be that hard to make a good "A-Team" movie. Get a few name stars willing to trade their integrity for some campy fun. Throw together a good, simple, helping-the-underdog script, and put some young work-horse director - a climber who can keep the fun but also do what they're told, and you've got it made.

Unfortunately, though the studio fulfilled the first requirement, they were seriously lacking on the other two. As a result, we get this week's version -- ridiculously complicated, completely unbelievable, and so crammed with non-stop, headache-inducing action, that you barely have time to catch your breath.

The story begins at some undetermined point in the past, in a dank warehouse somewhere in Mexico. Two thugs think they have the drop on their unnamed prisoner, but, of course, he has a plan. Col. Hannibal Smith always has a plan, a point the screenwriters felt was important to remind us of, giving poor Liam Neeson about 250 lines of dialogue including the word "plan." Elsewhere,

Bosco "B.A." Baracus is retrieving his beloved van from some nefarious characters and Lt. Templeton "Faceman" Peck is about to be set aflame by yet another set of villains, though these are more the jealous type, Face having been caught with the boss' wife.

This may seem like we're jumping in the middle of a typical "A-Team" adventure, but is, in reality, our origin story. Face and Hannibal are Army Rangers on a secret mission, Murdock is languishing, for some reason, in a Mexican asylum, and B.A. is a stranger, as the dialogue so cleverly informs us (to Hannibal: "I don't even know you, fool! I'm a complete stranger!").

Fate and the curious luck of the action hero bring these four together and, flash-forward eight years, they are the best secret counter-whatever team in the Army. Now in Iraq, they get tapped for one last job before being shipped home. It's at this point that the plot runs completely amok, and I pity the fool who tries to follow along.

There's a double and triple-crosses, globe-trotting adventure, prison breaks, and an elaborate scheme involving counterfeit $100 printing plates. On paper it probably sounded good, but with so many characters to keep track of, some barely mentioned until they show up half-way through the movie expecting to be recognized, and director Joe Carnahan's rapidly edited action scenes, that by the time the plan comes together, you're hopelessly lost. You can tell a script has gotten out of control when the characters have to stop every so often and tell each other what's going on.

As far as casts go, the producers of "The A-Team" could have done far worse. Bradley Cooper is just right as "Face" playing it snarky and flippant, all the while showing off his ripped abs. "District 9's" Sharlto Copely is similarly well cast as Murdock, getting the silly, madcap sense that Dwight Shultz brought to the original character. B.A. is played by Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, an "Ultimate Fighter," whatever that is. Jackson's not really an actor, but then neither was Mr. T, so it all works out.

The only iffy casting is Liam Neeson as Hannibal, but he keeps it light enough that you almost forget that this incredible actor is slumming in this silly action remake.

In supporting roles we have Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel as competing special agents, and Brian Bloom, who appears to be mostly a TV and video game actor. Bloom, it's also interesting to note, gets a writing credit on "A-Team," so the blame belongs at least partly to him.

The biggest problem, I think, is director Joe Carnahan. His first major film, "Narc," suggested a director with great atmospheric sense and an ability to handle dark drama with a steady hand. His next major effort, "Smokin' Aces," was wildly out of control, but at least had flair. Now, with "A-Team," you get the sense that he doesn't really know how to deal with big action scenes or small fight scenes, for that matter. Everything is cut together so fast and furious that you never can tell where you are in the scene or get a clear sense of what's going on. To me that suggests a director with very little confidence. You look at really good action movies, like "The Matrix," for example, and you see directors who step back and actually let you take in the scene. They don't have to use the editing bay as a way to hide substandard choreography or poor staging.

A movie like "The A-Team" lives or dies on its action scenes, and I'd have to say Carnahan has effectively killed it.

At one point in the film, my wife leaned over and whispered, "This movie is a perfect male version of 'Sex and the City.'"

I see her point, but at least "A-Team" didn't have anything to offend me. That is, until right about the 100-minute mark. B.A. has, for no real reason, taken on a vow of non-violence, and has been struggling with that throughout the film.

As the climax is rapidly approaching, Hannibal, in his typical fatherly way, is talking him through the conflict to come. At this point, the screenwriters have the gall to use the words of Ghandi to justify violence, giving B.A. a clear conscience after he dispatches the bad guy.

First, this is a silly action movie -- we don't need B.A. Baracus to have a complicated character arc. And second, invoking the world's most celebrated non-aggressor to justify a particularly bone-crushing beat-down is pretty crass. Mostly, the "A-Team" is just a convoluted mess with clever casting, but even innocuous fun can turn ugly, it seems.

Grade: C-

"The A-Team" is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.

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