After a series of impromptu meetings in Mexico during three unrelated adventures force them to team up, Army Rangers Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), "Face" (Bradley Cooper), Murdock (Sharlto Copley) and B.A. Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson) decide to stick together and quickly make a name for themselves as the most successful and effective alpha unit the U.S. Military has to offer. However, when they are set up by a slimy special unit commander (Brian Bloom) on a mission assigned to them by an anonymous CIA contact "named" Lynch (Patrick Wilson), they find themselves using all of their combined skills and insanity in the quest to clear their names and find the villains responsible, while also evading capture by disgraced captain (and Face's former flame) Charisa Sosa (Jessica Biel).
On all of his previous films, director Joe Carnahan struck me as a guy who thought he had something to prove. His debut film Blood, Guts, Bullets and Octane stank of Tarantino's influence. With Narc, he clearly wanted to validate himself as a "serious" filmmaker. Finally, in 2005's Smokin' Aces, he attempted to combine the two styles in a grab for balls-to-the-wall ensemble insanity. The international trailer for the movie was a winner: an artsy opening with clouds and violins, trumpeting Studio Canal's popular romantic comedies, followed by a minute of violent gonzo madness set to Motorhead's iconic rock explosion "Ace of Spades". It's a hell of a spot, but it also promised a movie Carnahan wasn't able to deliver, and it's in keeping with his other two. Blood's okay in fits and starts, but is truly plagued with its miniscule budget and team of amateurs; his second is better, but far from a blast of fresh air, especially on the heels of Training Day. Aces, the first of his films I saw, comes tantalizingly close to acceptable, but it's a bit short on creativity and peters out before the finish line.
Thankfully, Carnahan comes to The A-Team a contented man, ready to serve the material instead of demanding it serve him. Maybe after several fruitless years trying to get White Jazz and Bunny Lake is Missing off the ground, he was just happy to be working. Maybe the material's insistent "no worries" attitude spoke to him. Hell, maybe he's just doing it for the money, but whatever the reason, this is the loose-limbed, crowd-pleasing picture that eluded him before, and while you can't walk away from it without the stench of commerce filling your nostrils -- this is still a big-budget, major-summer-movie adaptation of a popular '80s TV show, by Hollywood's reigning maw of soulless cash-grabbing, 20th Century Fox -- you'll have a grin on your face all the same. The A-Team heroes are so awesome, even the villains do a double-take, and that happens in the first fifteen minutes.
One of Carnahan's major coups is that The A-Team has a game cast who appear interested in making the script placed in front of them rather than a group of career opportunists looking for some blockbuster leverage. It might appear unwieldy; an accomplished Academy Award-winner, a pretty-boy comedian, an MMA fighter, and the no-name star of last year's District 9 isn't a bad line-up, per se, but also not a combination that makes instant sense. Cleverly, Carnahan gives us bonding moments in small slices, usually picking two of the members to have a heart-to-heart rather than trying to give them all center stage, both as a foursome and in individual vignettes. The script may not place much emphasis on the group as a team in a tactical sense, but they all seem to be having fun, and even Jackson gives a semi-decent performance (despite yelling "fool" way too often). As far as the team goes, the standout is Copley, who might as well have dropped in from another planet, while an authoritative, gray-haired Neeson comes in a close second. People hoping for a repeat of his bad-ass performance in last year's Taken will be disappointed (his role feels closer in tone to his starring turn in Darkman than the cold-blooded character from Morel's movie), but it's still great fun to see him in such a boldly silly production.
As the baddies, Wilson and Bloom try to out-evil one another. Bloom is better at amassing audience contempt, unafraid to come off as a straight-up asshole, but my money's on Wilson all the way, who easily stands as one of the better big-screen douchebags in recent memory. The trailers barely offered a glimpse of his face (in a scene I'm pretty sure was cut from the final product), but he's not saddled with the crappy "focused authority who sees the A-Team isn't lying at the last moment" role I thought he was (the closest equivalent is reserved for a wooden Jessica Biel, who seems willing to have fun, but can't get on the same page as her fellow cast members). Instead, Wilson goes way over the top, blazing a glib, narcissistic trail of dickish "bro" attitude through the entire movie, and every second of it is gold. Each passing moment it takes me to finish writing this review is one in which I become convinced his performance is funnier.
There's a hint of auto-pilot when the third act explosions kick in, complete with a literal boatload of CGI (not crappy, like The Losers, but completely noticeable), at least one painfully modern quick-cut fight, and a plan which totally short-changes Copley. But the movie's laid enough groundwork that it can do so without losing the goodwill built up over the preceding hour and a half. When this movie was first announced, I was aggressively disinterested. I have no ties to the original TV show -- no comparisons here -- but against all odds, The A-Team is a bright spot in the remake game, the TV-adaptation craze, the B-action revival, and in this alarmingly dull year. At the moment, it looks like The Expendables will probably go with an R-rating, and if it does, there's no doubt it'll top Carnahan's picture in hard-hitting brutality, but the chances of it being more fun are extremely slim. The film ends with a recreation of the show's opening, and it plays like a promise for future sequels: "If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them..." Sounds good. I've got my eyes peeled already.
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