Fans of the A-Team TV series will want to know whether the new movie version is faithful to it -- which is to say they're hoping the film is cheesy, preposterous, and brimming with catchphrases. And it is. Mission accomplished there. But while that kind of corny entertainment is fun when you're 12 years old and it's on TV, for free, we usually have different standards when it comes to movies, especially now that we are adults and movie tickets are expensive. We realize now that someone saying "I love it when a plan comes together" while chomping a cigar is not, by itself, automatically awesome.
The A-Team really hopes your feelings toward it will be heavily influenced by nostalgia. Directed by Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces), it seems to have been packaged as a product, intended to hit certain points on a checklist, with the story, characters, and general coherence relegated to secondary importance. The screenplay is attributed to Carnahan, actor Brian Bloom (his first writing credit), and Skip Woods (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), but there were reportedly at least eight other men who wrote drafts during its long gestation period. They've been trying to make an A-Team movie for more than a decade -- not THIS A-Team movie, but ANY A-Team movie.
And this is what they wound up with: a frenetic, mildly entertaining action flick whose only distinction from other frenetic, mildly entertaining action flicks is that this one is called The A-Team.
It's an origin story, and then some. We see the guys framed for that famous "crime they didn't commit"; but before that, we get to see how the foursome met up in the first place! (As with many foursomes, this one began in Mexico.) The action has been moved to the present -- they're Army Rangers in Iraq rather than Vietnam -- but it's essentially the same ol' A-Team: Hannibal (Liam Neeson) is the leader, father figure, and cigar enthusiast; Face (Bradley Cooper) has specialized training in smooth talking and black-ops fornication; B.A. Baracus (Quinton 'Rampage' Jackson) is a skilled driver, nervous flier, and prolific pitier of fools; and Murdock (Sharlto Copley) is a clinically insane aircraft pilot who is a danger to himself and others.
The film, clearly intended to be the beginning of a franchise, has them trying to clear their names after escaping from federal prison after the frame job. Among the parties involved are the boys' respected old commander, Gen. Morrison (Gerald McRaney), a weaselly CIA agent named Lynch (Patrick Wilson), a military officer (Jessica Biel) who can serve as Face's love interest, and a devious security contractor named Pike (Brian Bloom, also one of the co-writers), whose company, Black Forest, is obviously a reference to Blackwater.
As you'd hope, the action is big and silly. People rappel down the walls of skyscrapers while firing guns. They drop a parachute-equipped tank from a plane and shoot at other planes with it while it falls. They execute perfectly timed, impeccably planned missions that involve knowing exactly where the enemy will be at exactly what time, down to the second. Face, representing the giddy viewer, frequently describes what's happening as "awesome." (Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley, both infectiously enthusiastic, are the MVPs. Liam Neeson's Hannibal is devoid of personality. And Rampage Jackson ... well, let's just say he's no Mr. T.)
Yes, the film knows it's cartoonish. The problem might be that it isn't cartoonish ENOUGH. In contrast with the flat-out insane action pics like Crank, Shoot 'em Up, and Carnahan's own Smokin' Aces, The A-Team occasionally wants us to take it seriously, to actually be invested in these characters' futures. But if we are invested, it's because we remember the TV show fondly, not because of anything Carnahan gives us here.
In fact, I'll go this far: If this were called anything other than The A-Team, you wouldn't put up with it. You'd want to know why the laws of physics don't apply, or how federal fugitives can travel the world with access to unlimited resources, money, and weapons. You'd want to know exactly HOW these little capers -- escaping from prison, obtaining top-secret documents -- were achieved. Plenty of movies are all about ONE such caper. Here, they happen every five minutes. How do they do it? Well, they're the A-Team, that's how. They're just awesome.
Now replace "A-Team" with the name of any other group of military dudes on a secret mission -- The Losers, from two months ago, for example -- and see how inclined you are to forgive the brainless, repetitious action. See how charitable you are toward the tough-guy dialogue -- always glib but seldom actually funny -- that sounds like something you and your 12-year-old buddies made up while playing with A-Team action figures in the back yard. The A-Team isn't terrible, but it relies far too heavily on built-in goodwill toward the A-Team brand rather than standing on its own.