Now Playing: ‘The A-Team’ – Overkill is Underrated

Is the big budget, high profile, Ridley and Tony Scott-produced remake of the “classic” ’80s television series a whopping success or a big old bomb? Read on to find out!

Nostalgic love is not required, but it helps.

In the new ‘A-Team’ movie, based on the iconic but not-particularly-good television series that ran on NBC from 1983 to 1987, we’re treated to a brief prologue that sets up the brotherly bond between four military men turned renegade heroes. The fact that this small section of the movie is meant to build both characters and relationships says something. While all these important building blocks are being set in place, the movie’s pace doesn’t slow down for a minute. Literally before the main credits roll (and before the A-Team, as a team, is fully developed), we’re already treated to zooming helicopter chases, a fighter jet, many men with guns, killer dogs, a man getting set on fire, and another man who is so insane that he impersonates a doctor and then gives a member of the team stitches in the form of a ‘Harry Potter’-esque lightning bolt. That’s the closest thing the movie gets to character development.

‘The A-Team,’ directed (relentlessly) by Joe Carnahan, is a big, dumb, explosive action movie that barely pauses to catch its breath or check its audience’s pulse. There is very little in the way of, say, narrative coherence. And its politics (especially its attitude towards women) are thorny and problematic. But it’s not entirely terrible. In fact, in its own loopy, cartoonish way, it’s a whole lot of fun. Until almost all that goodwill is squandered in a numbing third act that is the movie’s most chaotic section and also its dumbest.

For those of you that never tuned in originally, the A-Team consists of four macho Special Forces dudes who get framed for a crime they didn’t commit. (In the movie, it’s something about stolen plates that can be used to print perfect counterfeit money.) So, they strike out against the bad guys in an effort to get their good name back. Col. John “Hannibal” Smith is the leader of the group – a gray-haired, cool customer who’s always chomping on a cigar and “loves it when a plan comes together.” The role is benefited greatly by the regal screen presence of unlikely action star Liam Neeson. He commands the movie even when he’s doing little more than snarling. Bradley Cooper, usually a vortex of personality, is actually pretty watchable as Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck (or simply “Face”). He’s distinguished as the fast-talking ladies man in the group, probably in an effort to cut down on the overt homoeroticism that hangs in the air like an Iraqi oil fire. (It doesn’t really work.) In the iconic role of Sgt. B.A. Baracus, originated by the fool-pitying Mr. T, we get UFC fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. He’s given the movie’s meatiest character arc. B.A. wants to embrace pacifism even though his job is largely dependent on breaking necks. But the “actor” Jackson can’t rise above mumbling his lines, which makes any emotional connection difficult. I wanted to stand up and yell at the screen, “WHAT? COULD YOU SAY THAT AGAIN?” Then there’s H.M. Murdock, who in the original series was given the nickname “Howling Mad.” That’s not referred to in the movie, probably because the filmmakers thought it would be insensitive (to crazy people or werewolves, we’ll never know). He’s played by ‘District 9‘ breakout star Sharlto Copley, who promptly steals every scene he’s in.

As for the film’s heavies, we get Jessica Biel as an army captain with a fondness for leather dusters. She wants to bring our heroes down, and previously had a relationship with Face. (Again: she’s his beard). Brian Bloom, also one of the film’s four credited screenwriters, is a nefarious member of a Blackwater-esque private military troop. Patrick Wilson is a shady CIA type, essentially the Jason Patric role from ‘The Losers,’ except without that performance’s sense of goofy fun.

Really, those brief descriptions are all we get for motivation, backstory, or character development. The filmmakers seem to be coasting on the goodwill that the original series provided. Never before has a film leaned so heavily on nostalgic half-remembrances to serve as a narrative shortcut.

But you know what? It works. Mostly.

There’s no real sense of danger or threat to any of the action sequences. They’ve been heavily processed by a bunch of computer animators to the point that they resemble high-polish videogames. Also, our heroes are so cool and so indestructible that we as an audience never once worry about their safety. We just watch, as the special effects and pyrotechnics pile up, and the laws of physics (and finances – how do they pay for all this stuff?) get thrown out the window. But Carnahan, in his staging and execution of these sequences – which are only connected by the loosest of plot threads (double crosses, blah blah blah) – works up to a kind of zippy action movie rhythm. The movie may be less ‘Die Hard‘ and more ‘Looney Tunes,’ but these set pieces are staged and shot with a certain amount of bravado swagger. It’s like we’re watching through the A-Team’s eyes, from their winking, uproarious viewpoint.

By the time the movie reaches its exhausting third act, that rhythm has been disrupted. It suddenly becomes too much. The audience drowns, awash in a sea of computer-generated explosions and violent double crosses. Gone is much of the gonzo wit that made the rest of the movie so tolerable, replaced by bludgeoning, repetitious action movie noise. This section is decidedly laugh-free, particularly when the movie reaches its “conclusion.” I put that word in quotes because it becomes more and more obvious that this ‘A-Team,’ no matter how loud and fun it might be, is just the first in a potential franchise. It’s like a pilot to a television series we’re not all that excited about watching further.

What a shame, too, particularly with Joe Carnahan behind the camera. His 2002 feature ‘Narc’ was a hard-hitting film noir produced on a shoestring budget. Carnahan felt like the next great genre filmmaker. Watching ‘Narc’ was like watching ‘Memento‘ for the first time. You felt that you were in the hands of a filmmaker who was going to do a lot of amazing stuff. But then the years went on, with only one forgettable action movie (‘Smokin’ Aces‘) and many burned bridges. (He was set to direct Tom Cruise in ‘Mission: Impossible III‘ and Reese Witherspoon in a remake of ‘Bunny Lake is Missing,’ both of which dematerialized). And now he’s stuck directing ‘The A-Team,’ a movie that bares little resemblance to the film that made such an impact almost a decade ago.

This is saying nothing of the movie’s uneasy politics. It simultaneously bemoans private military groups like Blackwater while championing our heroes, who are their own ass-kicking military group. And the movie’s attitude towards women? Please. They are sex objects and little more. Even Biel’s character, a powerful military woman, can’t escape the misogynistic belittlement. It’d be a hell of a lot more infuriating, though, if the movie weren’t so hopelessly homoeroticized.

If you want a dumb, fun action movie that’s a little too long (over 2 hours) but hits many of the right spots, you could do a lot worse than ‘A-Team.’ I never checked my watch like I did during ‘Prince of Persia.’ The action sequences have a zippy flair. If you’re expecting more, then you’ll be disappointed. It will certainly help if you have a reverence for the old show. As one of the characters says in the movie, “Overkill is underrated.” You kind of have to wonder if this wasn’t the movie’s motto, printed on T-shirts and worn by the cast and crew. Because they took it to heart. Big time.

14 comments

  1. BostonMA

    nice review Drew. this is exactly how i thought the movie would be, if it turned out to be an overall positive. i’m looking forward to it, whenever it is that i see it.

  2. “He’s played by ‘District 9‘ breakout star Sharlto Copley, who promptly steals every scene he’s in.”

    Just wow. I went into this expecting very little, but it was all worth it for Sharlto. I’d like to get an accent count and see just how many he did over the course of the film!

    Speaking of accents, I thought Liam Neeson sounded… weird. Was it just me?

  3. Wow, talk about reading too much into a movie….Homoeroticism, military politics and women bashing? Its amazing how one person can or cant see any of this stuff, myself I didnt see any of this until I read this review and I honestly think its crap like this that turns people off to watching a great and fun action flick, its a movie about an 80s cheese TV show with over the top action, hilarious lines and a paper thin plot, if you dont know that going in, you have serious issues and honestly if you read too much of that junk into, IMO you have even more….

    • “A movie about an 80s cheese TV show with over the top action, hilarious lines and a paper thin plot.” Isn’t that pretty much what Drew just said about it? Seems to me that you agree with him as much as you disagree.

      Don’t tell me you’re also one of those people who doesn’t understand why critics called out ‘300’ for being a gay softcore pro wrestling music video, are you? 🙂

      • I understand it just fine, but for the A-TEAM, certainly not, I guess loyalty and good friendship is viewed as being gay now? 300 was a different story and with the actual knowledge of what went on back then it has some meaning to it, but I’m a fan of wrestling and dont find it homoerotic in any way and I certainly dont see 4 guys in a military unit being loyal and having a great friendship as being homoerotic either, IMO if you see it that way……you finish the sentence

        As for what I said and he said concerning those points, yes I agree with him there and really why read more into the movie than that? Its a summer fun flick and its meant to be a good time, nothing more, nothing less and I cant figure out why some people just cant figure that out….I’m not sure exactly what people were expecting out of an A-TEAM movie but I guess homoerotic, bashing women and government politics is exactly what they were going for…..

        • “I’m a fan of wrestling and dont find it homoerotic in any way”

          A bunch of sweaty, 3/4 naked, muscle-bound men with oil rubbed all over their bodies grappling with each other and rolling around thrashing on the floor until the dominant partner mounts the submissive partner… You don’t recognize anything homoerotic about that? Really? 🙂

          • Whether you choose to look at it like that isnt up to me my friend, I’ve watched wrestling since it first started getting big and never found it to be a homoerotic experience, but that isnt what we are talking about anyhow, thinking the A-TEAM is like that is ridiculous though

          • I’m with Chaz on this one. I like wrestling! Well, I like the wrestling bits, the stories and stuff can go to hell for all I care.

            I’ve always found the “homoerotic” aspect to be a cheap shot. And the way you broke it down is really unfair. That’s like saying that ‘The Godfather’ is just a bunch of Italian dudes shooting each other.

          • Uh, is there more to professional wrestling than what I described? It may be a cheap shot, but it’s also very, very true.

            I’m not saying that there’s no entertainment to be had there. But, I mean, c’mon. The overt homoeroticism is kind of hard to ignore. Most of these guys wear makeup and dress like drag queens while they’re at it.

          • Is there more to a movie than a bunch of people lying while someone films it? It there more to digital film than a bunch of 0s and 1s?

            Again, I just think that it’s an unfair oversimplification. Where you see a bunch of oily guys rolling around on eachother, I see a well choreographed (or even better, off the cuff) action sequence.

            I’m not sure where you get the makeup and drag queen thing from.

            If we’re going to put down pro wrestling as a homoerotic form of entertainment, let’s throw action movies and MMA fighting in there while we’re at it 🙂

          • “Where you see a bunch of oily guys rolling around on eachother, I see a well choreographed (or even better, off the cuff) action sequence. ”

            Can’t it be both? 🙂

  4. Drew

    What’s more alarming to me, Chaz, is that you didn’t find anything wrong with the movie’s portrayal of (and attitude towards) women. There isn’t a single woman in the movie (save for Jessica Biel, the token beard) who isn’t degraded or demeaned or made to be a sex object. The year is 2010, and even though the movie is based on a television series from the less-enlightened Reagan era, there should be some acknowledgment that maybe this line of thinking isn’t okay.

    Why is “reading too much into a movie” a bad thing? It creates conversation (like the one we’re having here) and shows an intellectual engagement with the material that even Joe Carnahan would probably encourage (while yelling on a bullhorn while something was set on fire).

    Any legitimate defense of this movie beyond “well, it could have been a worse way to spend too hours” is absurd.

    • Drew, I only remember one or two women that weren’t Biel, so I’m honestly not sure where all of that sexism was.

      But if the movie’s about a group of guys who happen to be sexist, what’s wrong with sexism? 🙂