Summer 2010 offered a hell of a run of macho Blockbusters featuring ensemble casts playing members of a military team doing dangerous special ops missions. I know that many flavour-of-the-month movie themes come in twos (Armageddon/Deep Impact, Wyatt Earp/Tombstone) but this year we effectively had 3, although clearly two of them are far more alike. I am sure that everybody has their favourites, and – personally – I was most disappointed in The Expendables (because I had such high expectations, which likely means that this will still have some worthy rewatch value), but the all-round loser appears to have been The A-Team. The third movie, The Losers, was shot on a fifth of The A-Team’s budget, and basically told the same tale (almost exactly, but more on that later) but with more panache, and more fun. It may have succeeded off the back of zero expectations, but, on paper, it was The A-Team that really should have worked. Joe Carnahan was helming, the man behind the quality crime drama Narc, and the stylish actioner Smokin’ Aces; and he had put together an all-star cast including: Liam Neeson, fresh from having proven his middle-aged action prowess in the excellent Taken; Bradley Cooper, who had proven his comic capabilities in the hilarious Hangover; and Sharlto Copley, the leading man from the highly acclaimed sleeper-hit sci-fi satire District 9. Throw the drop-dead gorgeous Jessica Biel into the mix, as well as Mixed Martial Artist Quinton Jackson, and surely you have a heady cocktail of acting, action and keen direction? And, for over $110 Million, a fair few decent effects. So, what went wrong?
Thrown together by random fortune, Colonel Hannibal Smith and his motley companions: insane pilot Murdock; tough-guy B.A.; and wise-cracking Face, soon become renowned for their numerous successful missions and their ingenuity in tight situations. When their latest mission turns out to be a set-up, however, the team are dishonourably discharged and sent to prison. But with the help of a shady CIA operative, they hatch an elaborate plan to escape, and set out to find out who framed them in the first place... and then get some serious payback.
I don’t know where to begin with The A-Team. All viewers really needed was a reasonably coherent plot, some likeable characters, snappy dialogue, stylish direction and decent action. I guess that really is too much to ask for these days though, as The A-Team fails on many levels.
Firstly, it’s simple: they should have stuck to the original TV series plot: four disgraced veterans who are now soldiers-for-hire, working to help the small folk (if they can find them, that is). Sure, they could have worked in a ‘bigger picture’, as well as some kind of story arc that resolved how they were disgraced in the first place, but it would have been a good idea to stick to this basic plan. It’s a simple plan, but a good one. Instead, they went for a kind of A-Team Begins approach, following suit with the successful reboot of Batman but failing to realise that there are plenty of other imitators who have fallen into the same trap – don’t take the fun out of a fun ride. Ridley Scott’s Russell Crowe reunion, Robin Hood, adopted the same idea, and failed miserably to provide the sheer fun required of a Robin Hood outing, and similarly The A-Team takes itself far too seriously in its strangely ambitious attempt to give the characters a contrived, unnecessarily complicated backstory.
Secondly, it really doesn’t help that this is very clichéd territory. Not only is the whole “framed and imprisoned, having to break out and foil the conspiracy” plot far too trite, but it really does not help that the movie was released off the back of its underrated counterpart, The Losers, which sported an identical story. Seriously, if you read the graphic novel for The Losers, or watch the movie, you will find the similarities too damn hard to ignore – the special ops team who are framed and have to prove their innocence; the shady, eccentric CIA operative; the assistance of a beautiful but tough agent; the heist sequence; the betrayal twist – hell, even the climactic container-ship/dockyard setpiece is the same.
But even if you go with such a well-trodded, predictable plot, and assume that not that many people will be familiar with The Losers, you simply must establish some decent characters within, and, again, The A-Team comes up short. Liam Neeson does his best with Hannibal, and is certainly the second best of the four, but he is still tasked with combining the knowing grin and indisputable leadership of George Peppard’s timeless character with a far too serious story which just does not cater for smiles and satisfaction at a ‘plan coming together’. Bradley Cooper has the qualities to make for a good Face – he can do witty wisecracking, and is effortlessly charming with the ladies, but here he similarly finds difficulty flipping, whimsically, between those traits and the more serious moments. Could we really believe this guy capable of shooting somebody in cold blood?
Similarly, if anybody could capture lovable character “Howling Mad” Murdock’s insanity, it would surely be District 9’s Sharlto Copley? And yet, despite a couple of moments (and more silly antics in the Extended Edition), most of his jokes fall flat, and he simply fails to bring forth the screen-grabbing insanity of the character. Of course, CG helicopter antics and complete non-participation in most of the movie’s numerous action sequences don’t help. And then there’s MMA fighter Quinton Jackson’s portrayal of B.A. Baracus, the former alter-ego of Mr. T. Honestly, Jackson survives this mess of a movie almost unscathed, thanks to an excellent introduction (that bit where he kicks a guy into a window is very cool), some of the better lines of dialogue, and some semblance of a story-arc (even if said arc is ridiculous and contrived).
Jessica Biel? Well, she’s still stunning, but doesn’t prove anything else in a wasted role here, and Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson imitates The Loser’s Jason Patric (complete with generic codename title) trying to bring his shady CIA character to life with Howard Hughes-eccentricity, but coming across as just plain odd. Strangely enough, little-known Joe Carnahan-collaborator Brian Bloom gives us probably the best character, in the movie’s competent lead henchman role, Pike who, at times, makes you almost root for him to win.
Even the longer Extended Edition does not save the movie. It does offer us longer introductions to the characters, more development of those sent to track down the missing soldiers, more dialogue during the planning, further fun in the madhouse with Murdock (complete with some electro-shock-treament), more shooting – and, consequently, more death scenes, and more profanity (all of those f-bombs trimmed short by jet engines etc. are still censored though – it’ll be interesting to see if they’ve been reinstated on the US Extended Cut); as well as longer moments with the returning 80s series actors, Dwight Shultz and Dirk Benedict, who now make the main movie, rather than just being relegated to an after-credits moment; but none of this makes it anything more than the better of two versions of the same dud.
And it’s really all Joe Carnahan’s fault. He had a stupid amount of money to spend on this movie, and it seems like it all went to his head. Where was the guy who could create rich and interesting characters and a tense, conspiracy-driven plot (as in Narc)? And where was the guy who could take a relatively tiny budget and turn around one of the most stylish and audacious action extravaganzas ever in Smokin Aces? Here he’s got over $100 Million to spend, and, with every use of the cash, he appears to ruin the movie with increasingly silly – and totally unnecessary – effects sequences.
Flying tanks, cascading domino-like containers, swinging across dockyards as stuff explodes in the background, piloting a CG helicopter as if it were in a cartoon – the ideas on offer here are presented in a way more suitable for a Toy Story movie than for an ostensibly serious actioner. Seriously, if you thought the scene in the trailer with the flying tank was over-the-top, this movie reaches whole new levels. Don’t get me wrong, some of the individual ideas are nice, but they are mere moments in some very long and protracted effects-dominated action scenes which simply aren’t any good. The plot is just a succession of increasingly elaborate escape sequences, with some seriously contrived plot-lines (and patronising expositional flashbacks, in the extreme) feebly attempting to hold it all together. Surely they could have at least got the action right, but it barely even reaches, let alone hits the right note (coming close during the heist shootout).
Wow, and if you thought that the fight sequences were badly edited in The Expendables, then wait until you see some of the dimly-shot hand-to-hand combat moments in this film. The scene where Hannibal trades quips about martial arts styles with a tough opponent – in between bouts of fighting – is just terrible: a flurry of Seagal-esque hand-movements and indiscernible moves, and then another few lines of stupid dialogue. Repeat. At least you could see what was going on in The Losers.
Honestly, the whole failure of the film (and it did fail – $160 Million in Box Office receipts for a movie that costs $110 Million to make is not a success, particularly not for a movie that was expected to do well) has to rest on the shoulders of Director Joe Carnahan. He chose the wrong script, poorly developed the characters, mis-directed the cast, badly staged the action, and relied too much on some, frankly pretty obvious – and shoddy – CG effects. And I honestly had zero problems with them rebooting another 80s franchise, particularly one which was so frivolous and vapid in the first place, but these days you simply have to give audiences more – I was probably not even into double-figures when I liked reruns of The A-Team, and seeing a big, dumb, film adaptation hit the Big Screen should have been a nostalgic moment, not another violation of a fun childhood memory, now stripped of all that wholesome goodness.
At the end of the day, my biggest problem with The A-Team is that it is a movie that you simply do not want to have to watch again. There’s no joy to be gleaned from it; no wry smile as you see the characters do cool things, or embark upon some witty interplay. There’s no fun, and there’s no heart. Even with all of the flaws in Stallone’s ensemble 80s throwback actioner The Expendables, I am still quite keen on revisiting it, to enjoy the decent moments, and see if there’s anything more to enjoy on a second viewing. And I’ve seen The Losers half a dozen times in as many months, and shown it to as many friends as possible. I wasn’t expecting much from The A-Team, but I was expecting this little. Who knows? Perhaps a sequel, following the TV series storyline more closely, will have more going for it. Unfortunately, we will likely never know. But perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. This is watch-once, with-your-brain-switched-off, material. Even then, prepare to be disappointed, as it’s your only hope of making it out intact. I hate it when a plan falls apart.
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