A-Team, The: Joe Carnahan’s Version of the Popular 1980s TV Series

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Big, fast, and noisy, “The A-Team,” Joe Carnahan’s screen version of the popular 1980s TV series, is an artistic disappointment, a muscular but largely uninvolving picture made for the boys.
With the exception of changes in context (from Vietnam to the Iraq War) and few other elements, this “A-Team” is faithful in spirit and characters, but not in joy or pleasure to the original TV show, which ran on NBC for 5 years, from January 1983 to December 1986 for a total of 98 episodes.
Dumbing-down the TV’s original format, which was not very subtle to begin with, Carnahan and writing partner Brian Bloom have redrafted the action to take place during the troop withdrawal from the Middle East. While they draw on the camaraderie and the humor that characterized the series, they have ramped up considerably the cartoonish-like battles, explosions, and other set-pieces.
Created by Stephen J. Cannell (who is one of the movie’s producers) and Frank Lupo, the TV series focused on the exploits of a team of four Vietnam veterans. Sentenced by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit, they head underground and become soldiers of fortune. Led by a cigar-chomping Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, played by George Peppard, the team acted on the side of good, helping the oppressed, while trying to clear their names.
Mind you, though garnering a large and enthusiastic following, the TV series was never provocative in ideas. But it offered a new type of heroes, seldom seen on TV before, wrongly convicted men who go out there to help people who can’t help themselves. The premise–the need to fight back against injustice—was simple and familiar but the show offered unadulterated fun with itsn over-the-top violence (in which no one was really hurt).
This cannot be said about Carnahan’s adaptation, which may be one of the loudest, most outlandishly plotted, full of explosions pictures to have come out of Hollywood in recent times.  Size matters: Carnahan, who previously made “Narc” and “Smokin’ Aces,” is not a subtle director who knows how to modulate action sequences. He believes in fast-paced storytelling, sharp and abrupt cuts, and mega indiscriminate use of close-ups. As a result, his approach defeats his talented cast, whose members have no chance to develop any dramatic momentum through their characters.   All the energy in “A-Team” comes from its over-the-top action set-pieces.
Admittedly, Carnahan’s task was not easy, torn between wish to be respectful of the series for the generation of fans who grew up on it and yet take the A-Team into the present, the 21st century, with all its military wars and other tensions.

The plot is rudimentary, sort of an excuse (or glue) for the action sequences.  Each member of the quartet is briefly introduced in the first scene. Cut to 8 years and 80 successful missions later in Iraq, where the men are framed for stealing a briefcase full of printing plate worth of $100 million.  They are thrown into prison, but, with the help of a CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson), whose motives are ambivalent, they bust out of jail, determine to clear out their names and catch the real culprit.  

 

For a while, the movie benefits from its gifted cast. Liam Neeson plays the pivotal role of Col. John “Hannibal” Smith, the master tactician who’s always a step ahead of the enemy, using unconventional methods and keeping his team out of trouble. A believable hero, Hannibal has a strong sense of ethics and he loves his country and his men. When the plan goes well, he coolly pulls out a cigar and lights it. Sexy, authoritative and strong, Neeson brings gravitas to his role, and he is the only one who really acts is a naturalistic way.

 

Pumped up from many hours spent at the gym, Bradley Cooper, fresh on the heels of his comedy smash “The Hangover,” is Lt. Templeton “Face” Peck, the A-Team’s con man and go-to guy. Face uses and abuses his good looks and charm to scam and hustle his way, and at the same time, lives the good life. Clever, seductive and handsome, Face can talk anyone, especially women, into anything he wants, and as a soldier, when the situation calls for it, he can get as rough as his peers.

The “crazy” to Face’s “cool is “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock, played by Sharlto Copley (of “District 9” fame), one of the best chopper pilots to emerge from Desert Storm. Blessed with a genius I.Q., he can impersonate a surgeon or a prince within seconds. According to official records, he is mentally unstable, and sometimes he’s scarily convincing at it. A master of improvisation, Murdrock’s wacky character thrives on danger and humor; you never know if he’s really crazy or just putting it on. Offering most of the film’s comic relief, Copley employs a Southern accent—a Texas Panhandle twang.

Rounding out the quartet is B.A. Baracus, the most iconic character, played by former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a skilled driver and mechanic who can create highly functional machinery out of ordinary parts. A tough-as-nails fighter with a sort fuse, he’s also good at mano-a-mano fights.
The ensemble’s only female character, Jessica Biel, portrays Charissa Sosa, a captain with the military’s Defense Criminal Investigation Service unit. Sexy, capable, independent and focused, Sosa, who had once dated Face and may still be in love with him, becomes the Team’s number one problem as their chief pursuer.

Cast against type, Patrick Wilson is CIA operative Lynch, a key player in the Team’s most explosive mission. Little is know about Lynch, who maintains an aura of mystery almost up to the end, including the question of whether or not he’s a good guy or a villain.

 

As id competing with Michael Bay (“The Transformers” franchise), Carnahan goes out of his way to create big, intense, outlandsih action sequences, with varying degrees of success.  But even the action is interrupted by insertions of close-ups, maps, paper plans, and so on. 
A desert-like region outside Cache Creek, British Columbia was chosen for its topographical similarity to the Mexican desert, where the story begins by introducing the four amigos. The former Sanitarium in Kamloops stood in as the location for the Mexico Army Meddac Hospital where the Team meets and rescues Murdock.
Vancouver provided the backdrop for much of the film’s action as well as the soundstages. To convey a global feel for the action, Charles Wood and his team designed, constructed and dressed over 120 different sets and locations, transforming Vancouver into the Middle East (Baghdad and Kabul), Europe (Frankfurt, Munich, Mannheim, Zurich, Oslo, the North Sea, the mid-Atlantic), and the Americas (Sonora, Los Angeles, Washington, Pensicola, Lake Tahoe, Boulder).
Vancouver’s new Convention Center was transformed into the Frankfurt Central Train Station. One of the pivotal sets, a Forward Operating Base outside of Baghdad, was constructed on a large, isolated, sandy building site near Vancouver. There is a hair-raising episode where the Face is hanging under a semi as the truck is hurtling down a road.
Several sets were used for the climactic third act, which in the story take place in the Long Beach Docks. The logistically-demanding sequence, which involves complicated stunts and pyrotechnics and the explosion of large container ships, offers some visual pleasure.

As he proved in his former movies, Carnahan has a modernist, muscular, gritty sensibility, which favors rapid action over detailed characterization, screaming over normal talking, punctuated one-liners over naturally flowing dialogue.   Intentionally or unintentionally, by taking such a broad and vulgar approach to the material, Caranahan and Bloom have camped up the text to the extreme. As a result, both men and the situational crises they face come across as caricatures, figures in a big, long, and loud circus-like video game.

Accessible but exhausting, dynamic but repetitive, this A-Team” is too mechanically made, and too straining in its effort, to be “cool” to generate any emotional investment or interest in the proceedings.  At the end of the screening, instead of feeling entertained and exhilarated, I felt drained, relieved that the deafeningly loud movie was over.