Silver Screen: The A-Team **1/2
The collective cultural effort to dredge up every single movie and TV property from the 1980s continues with The A-Team, which is, perversely, as good a choice as any. The relatively short-lived action show is fondly remembered for the cheeseball factor, its clunkiness glossed over by sweet hindsight, yet it's not actually beloved (or substantial) enough for Hollywood to ruin. It's not as though anyone can make a show that once starred Mister T. too stupid.
And so we step into the Little-Ways-Back Machine and reintroduce ourselves to Hannibal (Liam Neeson), Faceman (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), and Murdock (Sharlto Copley), seen coming together for the first time in the opening sequence. The impulsive Faceman has attempted to bring down a Mexican drug lord by himself, necessitating the aid of his stogy-chomping mentor Hannibal, who just happens to run into a B.A. driving his prized GMC van through the desert. Instantly bonding over their status as Army Rangers, the three team up to infiltrate the drug lords' base and kill their dudes, then make a quick getaway thanks to Murdock, who they find residing in a mental institution.
Say this for The A-Team: It gets the origin-story approach right. The whole crew is assembled by the time the opening credits are done rolling; none of this dragging-it-out business, where we plunk down $8 to see a guy in a batsuit punch crooks or an archer lead a band of merry thieves in a forest only to twiddle our thumbs for a two-hour windup just to get down to business, as though people who already paid cash money to see rubber-batsuit guy or avenging woodland archer really need these silly stories thoroughly justified. Either you think the A-Team is dumb or you don't, but they're the A-Team for the whole goddamn movie, which is not to be underestimated in the prequel-crazed franchise frenzy that is blockbuster season in the new millennium.
Having established themselves as tough guys who are crazy but always get the job done-- a fact reinforced at least a half-dozen times in the dialogue, which mostly is a collection of catch-phrases and tertiary characters saying, "They're crazy, but they always get the job done"-- the boys set off on a secret mission in war-torn Iraq. A grizzled general (Gerald McRaney, Major Dad on network TV and major asshole on HBO's Deadwood) sends them after a printing press and set of plates that will allow those damn dirty Iraqis to print U.S. currency, almost one-one-hundredth of what we've willingly spent invading and occupying them.
But a group of Blackwater-- er, "Black Forest"-- mercenaries foil the spectacular operation, making off with the rescued plates and leaving Hannibal's crew to take the fall. The boys are dishonorably discharged and imprisoned-- that is until the same CIA agent (Patrick Wilson) pulling the strings in Iraq offers to spring them if they'll retrieve the plates from Black Forest leader Pike (Brian Bloom, one of the movie's cowriters).
That's the operative excuse for a series of increasingly wild and improbable action sequences that feature, among other silliness, helicopters flying upside down and an airborne tank steered with the recoil force of shooting its main turret. Director Joe Carnahan's approach is to make the movie so broad and absurd that it can't be taken even a little bit seriously, and he mostly succeeds. The action is big and dumb, and it's passably fun if instantly forgettable.
The cast mostly makes the best of a bland situation. Cooper's smugness masquerading as oily charm is as appropriate here as anywhere, and Rampage, intentionally or not, replicates Mister T.'s stiffness and apparent lack of familiarity with the English language. Neeson is fine but should probably know better, and the less said about Jessica Biel as an all-business Army investigator the better. District Nine's Sharlto Copley steals almost all of his scenes with a fun performance that's every bit as overcooked as the rest of the movie.
Retooling an already intrinsically frivolous TV franchise into a movie that's almost self-defensively dumb is a double-edged sword: While it provides a pre-fab excuse for clumsiness and a lack of substance, it also guarantees ahead of time that the movie will do nothing even remotely new, cannot even pioneer its own brand of gleeful stupidity. It's an awfully cynical calculation, one in which even the glimmer of hope that something new and interesting might come about is traded for the guarantee of a free pass. That might not seem quite so insipid if it wasn't the formula for half the movies glutting multiple screens this summer, and for too many summers previous.
If The A-Team was the first nudge-and-wink remake, it might have an easier time passing as a lovable lark, but we've seen this playbook too many times before: cutesy self-referential jokes, a couple of original-series celebrity cameos for fanboy fodder, and a GMC vanload of catchphrases. The A-Team isn't even going through the action-movie motions, it's going through the action-movie remake motions, unoriginal even in its unoriginality. Yes, it's passable entertainment, but we deserve better than a steady diet of the passable.