WFTB Score: 4/20
The plot: A tight-knit quartet of Army Rangers known as the A-Team find their luck runs out after eight years of success, when a mission to retrieve millions of dollars and currency plates in Iraq results in disaster, disgrace and prison terms. Agent Lynch of the CIA is keen to spring them from jail to retrieve the plates from Private Militiaman Pike; but are they being set up for another fall? For leader Hannibal Smith, that’s definitely not the plan.
A hazardous mission in Mexico brings together and bonds the Alpha or “A-Team” of four US Army Rangers: logistics mastermind Colonel ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson); Lt. Peck, aka ’Face’ (Bradley Cooper), whose smooth talking constantly gets him in and out of trouble; expert driver and all-round hard man Sgt B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson); and ace pilot/fruit loop Capt ‘Howling mad’ Murdoch (Sharlto Copley), whose aerial antics leave Baracus with an acute fear of flying. Eighty missions later, General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) informs Smith about a top-secret mission to retrieve invaluable currency plates from Saddam Hussein’s clutches, which must be conducted under the noses of Face’s sometime acquaintance Lt. Sosa (Jessica Biel) and the private security firm Black Forest, headed by arrogant Brock Pike (Brian Bloom). Although the plan initially comes together, Morrison is killed by a huge explosion and while Pike disappears to Germany with the plates, the A-Team are dishonourably discharged and sent to prison. However, CIA Agent Lynch is desperate to retrieve the plates, so arranges to get Smith and the others out of jail to steal them back from a bank in Frankfurt, also kidnapping the ‘Arab’ who’s behind the scheme all along while keeping Sosa one step behind them. But are the A-Team’s actions just part of someone else’s bigger plan? And can they come up with a scheme of their own to secure their freedom?
For those of you who weren’t around in the 80s, here’s a quick précis of The A-Team on telly: Cigar-chewing Hannibal Smith (George Peppard, a prickly customer according to everyone who worked with him) led Face (Dirk Benedict), Murdoch (Dwight Schultz) and B.A. (Mr. T) from a smart black Vandura, righting wrongs inflicted on the little guys by bad prats (thanks Alan Partridge), unleashing homemade hell on them whilst evading the clutches of Colonel Decker. Face charmed the ladies, B.A. and Murdoch were forever at each other’s throats, and no-one – alright, almost no-one – died. Helicopters full of henchmen routinely hurtled into mountains: they’d spill out clutching their temples and bemoaning ripped trouser legs.
As you might guess, The A-Team’s caustic star, gung-ho attitude and casual sexism meant that it was hardly the most progressive of shows, but it carried itself off with confidence and good humour, always aware of its inherent silliness. Carnahan’s movie treatment touches bases with a few of the tropes of the original – B.A.’s fear of flying, Hannibal’s “I love it when a plan comes together” catchphrase – but is completely lacking in any of the TV show’s self-conscious charm. The TV A-Team were ‘Nam survivors, renegade vets with hearts of gold; these blokes are cocky, indestructible soldiers with highly unprofessional character traits who are nonetheless stupendously good at their jobs; Hannibal and Face are also apparently clairvoyant, since they factor the enemy’s movements into their plans in advance. Handily, the team’s adversaries are not merely predictable, but also incompetent to the point of being unemployable. The depiction of the CIA is laughable, while Pike is a ridiculously boo-hiss bad guy.
There’s little relief offered by the underdeveloped subplots, either: Face and Sosa’s love interest is perfunctory – what on earth would either of these people see in each other? – while B.A.’s struggle with his conscience is a lazy nod towards the original A-Team’s reluctance to kill characters. Luckily for him, and the film’s thirst for bullet-spraying violence, Gandhi said it was alright to mow people down after all. Who’d have thought?
Of course, storyline niceties are of secondary importance in most action movies, and The A-Team delivers virtually non-stop action; but it has so little resonance with the TV series that calling it The A-Team feels redundant: Noisy Action Movie #9,212 would have worked just as well. Carnahan’s movie replicates the excesses of most modern blockbusters; his film is aimed at excitable boys who will react favourably – so he figures – to references to fighting as looking like Call of Duty. However, the visual effects in Call of Duty often look more realistic than the mediocre ones on offer here, to the extent that the video game rejects the outlandish and unconvincing stunts of this film (for example, all the helicopter stuff – how does Murdoch avoid those dozens of rockets, exactly?). Admittedly, there is some satisfaction in seeing the group ‘fly’ a tank into Germany, but in terms of both visuals and plausibility it turns the film into a big-budget cartoon. Still, by this point Hannibal has already planned his own resurrection and escape from cremation to the last second, so nothing should surprise us.
I can complain about the duff characterisation, silly plot and naff CGI all I want; in fact, it’s all completely redundant. The A-Team is edited in such an attention-deficit manner, with no single shot allowed to stand for more than four or five seconds (most are well under this length), that it’s often difficult to follow what’s going on, a task made no easier by the extensive use of shakicam. It’s possible that younger brains are better able to cope with this kind of thing, though I doubt it; I frequently had to wipe my eyes to cope with wave after wave of confusing images, and found I was spending the majority of the film counting the length of each shot – which doesn’t say much for the story. I’ve not mentioned the acting, but it’s generally okay: Neeson’s tough but humourless, Cooper’s smiley, Copley and Jackson don’t disgrace themselves whilst never threatening to match the originals; Wilson smarms well, Bloom sneers adequately, and Biel makes what she can of a thoroughly useless role.
If you make it to the end of the credits, there’s a little bonus for the nostalgic; however, most people who remember Dwight Schultz and Dirk Benedict will have been rendered insensible by the hyperactivity of The A-Team, whilst those who tuned in to the movie’s frantic rhythm will be unimpressed by the wheeling out of a couple of old fogeys (Mr. T pitied the fools who tried to palm him off with a ten-second cameo, for which I bless him). In my assessment of Carnahan’s horrible Smokin’ Aces, I compare him unfavourably with Tarantino; The A-Team isn’t quite as bad a movie, but it does makes most Michael Bay films appear disciplined, nuanced and vaguely pacifist. For some, that might sound like heaven: for me, it’s my very own homemade hell.