I absolutely loved The A-Team TV series when I was a kid. My little brother was born when I was six years old. I was in the waiting room at the hospital watching an episode of The A-Team when the doctor came in to tell me I could meet my new brother, but I wanted to stay and finish watching the episode instead. You could say that I am inclined to like an A-Team movie, but I was kind of dreading it. Even as a wee lad, I was aware that the storytelling in the show wasn’t exactly sophisticated. Luckily, the film version embraces the show’s silliness, delivering an action-packed movie that is fairly empty-headed, but is always lots of fun.
The series, which aired in the early 1980s, chronicled a team of Army Rangers who were convicted of a crime they didn’t commit while serving in Vietnam. They escaped and became soldiers of fortune, helping the helpless while firing a lot of bullets but never killing anybody. The movie serves as an origin story, albeit updated to modern times. It opens in Mexico, where Col. John “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson), the cigar-chomping leader and strategist, is already working with the charming and handsome Face (The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper). While trying to take down an evil general, they run into the menacing B.A. Baracus (ultimate fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) and add the final member to their team, Capt. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley), a near-mad pilot they pick up at a psych ward.
Cut to “8 years and 80 successful missions later,” and the guys are the best covert team in the military, sent in whenever the impossible needs to be done. It’s the last days of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, and the team is framed for stealing plates used to print U.S. currency. With the aid of the possibly villainous CIA Agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson), the team busts out and tries to clear their names, while being chased by Lt. Sosa (Jessica Biel), an army intelligence officer who also just happens to be Face’s old flame.
There are numerous nods to the old series, with the theme song and the van making appearances, along with plenty of plans coming together and much pitying of fools. But the faithfulness to the show extends to more than trivia. The fun, relaxed tone is intact, as well. The show was kind of a tongue-in-cheek take on The Dirty Dozen, and the movie takes that tone and runs with it. The team “specializes in the ridiculous,” as Biel’s character says, and they obviously know it. The characters seem to be having a lot of fun, and their exuberance is infectious.
Joe Carnahan directed the movie and wrote the script with Skip Woods and Brian Bloom. You can practically feel Carnahan’s glee radiating off the screen as you watch some of the film’s ridiculous action sequences. Carnahan’s debut film as director was called Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane, which tells you all you need to know about the movie. He flirted with seriousness with 2002’s Narc, a gritty cop film that had real soul, but he reverted to absurdity with the over-the-top assassin film Smokin’ Aces. And here, Carnahan seems to be having a great time blowing stuff up real good.
There is a huge action sequence in the middle of the movie that is a good indicator of what the rest of the film is like. It involves the A-Team escaping from the army while being chased by fighter planes, and trying to “fly” a tank that’s parachuting to the ground, while of course trying to shoot down the planes chasing them, and if you aren’t on board with this sequence then you won’t really like anything in the movie.
The action scenes in the film usually have only a tangential relationship to the laws of physics, but the action is so relentless, and Carnahan is so dedicated to delivering gleeful, barely controlled chaos, that it hardly matters.
Neeson provides a solid spine to the movie, but he’s perhaps a little too intense for the tone of the rest of the film. George Peppard, who played Hannibal in the series, always had a gleam in his eye signaling that he knew exactly how ludicrous the show was, but Neeson doesn’t always seem to be in on the joke.
The A-Team offers silly action and dumb fun Cooper brings great oily charm to the wisecracking Face, while Jackson makes a surprisingly strong B.A. He isn’t as imposing as Mr. T was back in the day, but he is a stronger actor, which comes in handy when the film attempts to give B.A. actual character development (and only in this movie would a character try to talk someone out of pacifism).
Copley, last seen turning into a prawn in District 9, almost steals the film as Murdock, making the guy seem legitimately demented, but also relentlessly sweet. And Wilson is a lot of fun as the sarcastic, mysterious CIA agent (who isn’t terribly different from the sarcastic, mysterious villain Jason Patric played in The Losers) who is chasing the A-Team.
Biel is the movie’s weakest link. There’s nothing particularly wrong with her performance, but her character has absolutely no depth or much of a purpose in the movie. It would be understandable if the filmmakers wanted to use her as eye candy, but there is no real effort even to do that. Instead, they’re content to use her as a scold and a harridan who is trying to ruin the A-Team’s fun. Maybe the filmmakers are just trying to keep alive the show’s tradition of having a useless female character around.
Intelligent action movies with soul and depth are always welcome, if kind of rare. But who would want a serious, realistic verion of The A- Team, anyway? It would betray the silliness of the original show. Here, Carnahan manages to keep the madness humming along at a fever pitch, and the movie never takes itself seriously but manages to keep us involved in the characters. You won’t get much depth from The A-Team, but it will make you smile.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.