Friday, June 11, 2010

The A-Team: 'A' for audacious

The A-Team (2010) • View trailer for The A-Team
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for relentless cartoon violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.11.10
Buy DVD: The A-Team • Buy Blu-Ray: The A-Team (+ Digital Copy) [Blu-ray]

Back in the day  the early 1980s, to be precise  The A-Team was the action show for folks who found Charlie's Angels too intellectually challenging.

Sacramento-born director Joe Carnahan (Smoking Aces) has taken that template to heart, with his noisy, big-screen reboot of the former. This new and improved A-Team is even more absurd and more awesomely indestructible than its boob-tube ancestor, but I'll say this much: The cast  highlighted by the scene-stealing Sharlto Copley  makes the ride quite entertaining, no matter how daft things get.
The man with the plan: Despite being warned to leave this particular mission
alone, Hannibal (Liam Neeson, far right) concocts a scheme that he believes his
"boys" -- from left, Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), "Howlin' Mad"
Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) --
can bring home with their usual hel-for-leather precision. Ah, but things are
destined to go drastically awry...

And they get very daft.

I knew where we were heading when one of the first death-defying escapes involved flying a helicopter upside-down, a feat that defies aerodynamic reality on so many levels that aviation engineers  and real-world chopper pilots  will bust a gut from derisive laughter.

But things only gets crazier, most notably with a jaw-dropping sequence that finds our heroes plummeting to earth inside a tank suspended by three massive parachutes, while using said military vehicle  in "flight," no less  to shoot down attacking drone aircraft.

Really, I lost track of the laws of physics being violated by the script credited to Carnahan, Brian Bloom and Skip Woods. Adjectives fail me; the word "silly" just doesn't have enough magnitude.

And yet ... and yet...

Team leader Liam Neeson's Hannibal Smith, taking over from TV's George Peppard, is the way-cool epitome of grace under fire: a tough-talking, cigar-chomping planner never at a loss for the solutions to 13 impossible problems. Neeson has come late to the action hero genre, but  as he demonstrated in 2008's Taken  he's quite good at conveying the necessary blend of rugged charm and implacable, thug-busting fury.

Bradley Cooper is equally beguiling as the smooth, suave, lady-killing Templeton "Face" Peck, a glib operator who can charm his way into any situation ... and past any lady's defenses. Cooper continues to make good on the promise he demonstrated on TV's Alias, where he honed the light comedy action chops that he demonstrates so well in the midst of this madness.

Speaking of madness, though, Copley is this film's secret weapon, and Carnahan's lucky to have him. The reluctant actor who made such a memorable big-screen debut in last year's District 9 is a hell-for-leather force of nature here as "Howlin' Mad" Murdock, the mentally unbalanced pilot who forever seems 15 minutes beyond the effect of his meds, and yet always manages to fly whatever aircraft Hannibal somehow scrounges up.

Copley's Murdock rambles his way through half a dozen different languages or dialects, depending on circumstances  although he seems most comfortable with a faux Texas Panhandle twang  and flips out most engagingly from time to time. But he always pulls it together, and most convincingly, when Hannibal turns serious, thrusts his stern gaze within inches and intones, "I need you now, son."

"Yes, sir!" Murdock replies, suddenly stone sober and intent. And we're up, up and away once again.

Alas, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is something of a weak link as Bosco "B.A. (Bad Attitude)" Baracus; the World Wrestling Entertainment veteran has neither the charm nor the presence of Mr. T, who tackled the part so memorably on television. Jackson's acting limitations aside, his character gets saddled with a misguided peace/love subplot during too much of the film, and doesn't even show off much in the way of body-slamming physical mayhem.

In other words, very little rampage.

The character is confined to little more than his original signature Achilles' heel: a paralyzing fear of flying, when Murdock is involved, which necessitates constant doping, drugging and blissing out, in order to get the big guy into the next winged or rotored transport.

This film's giddily improbable plot subscribes to one memorable line that Neeson delivers prior to an explosive interlude: "Overkill is underrated." With that as a starting point, we're launched into a mission that "the boys" are warned to leave alone: the recovery of some U.S. currency plates and the millions of already printed dollars that are poised to destroy the American economy.

Hannibal ignores the warning, of course; the operation goes awry  thanks to the intervention of a black ops spook named Pike (Brian Bloom, suitably nasty) and his team  and our boys get court-martialed and tossed into the pokey. Ah, but the situation smacks of set-up, and new CIA buddy Lynch (Patrick Wilson) is happy to help bust them out in order to recover the missing plates.

Cue some round-the-world espionage work  Hannibal, as always, never at a loss for plans  and brief bits of global travelogue, in between plenty of fresh mayhem.

Jessica Biel has a rather thankless role as Charissa Sosa, a captain with the U.S. military's Defense Criminal Investigator Service unit; she's ostensibly responsible for retrieving the plates, but mostly has a serious mad on regarding Hannibal and his boys, and particularly Face, with whom she shares a complicated dating history.

Biel, alas, spends most of the film making snarky comments about the A-Team's most recent ridiculous escape or escapade  telling us about stuff we're watching  and thus serves as little more than a walking said-bookism machine: "Oh, look: Now they're flying a tank!"

Carnahan orchestrates all the carnage as if he were directing a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon, and in fact these folks  good guys and bad guys  survive bone-crunching, body-flattening, limb-shredding physical abuse much the way Wile E. Coyote somehow stumbled away from each of the failed booby-traps intended to catch the Roadrunner.

This, too, is a remnant of the TV series, where week after week (for example) drivers spectacularly smashed cars in a manner that would have pulped their tender human flesh, yet somehow lived to fight another day. With barely a scratch.

Ditto with all the gunfire: truly amazing that so many bullets manage to miss their targets (again, good or bad). After all, 20th Century Fox doesn't want to jeopardize this film's family-friendly (?) PG-13 rating.

Honestly, I think the MPAA ratings dweebs were more concerned about Hannibal's cigars than all the bombastic violence.

And it feels as if Carnahan is trying to outdo Michael Bay's similarly hyper-violent (but harmless, donchaknow) Transformers entries.

None of which matters beyond idle, Starbucks-dwelling chatter after the fact. The issue is whether Carnahan's revved-up A-Team delivers the thrills, spills and comic yocks one expects from a Friday night roller coaster ride at the movies: The answer, a firm affirmative.

Heck, I'd watch it again just to spend more time with Copley's Howlin' Mad Murdock.

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