by Richard von Busack
Stick around, past the politically creepy pre-title sequence—it’s like the fond wish of an Arizonan that the US/Mexican border was patrolled with a death ray. After that, Joe Carnahan’s The A-Team develops into the kind of breezy, tall-tale action film that so many try to make and so few have either the guts or the gall to pull off. Carnahan and the writers have a healthy appetite for taking the more outré stuff in James Bond films—the live-man-trapped-in-the-crematorium scene in Diamonds Are Forever, for instance–and giving it a final turn.
The TV show, which ran from 1983-87, was decadent action-adventure mulch, most fondly remembered for the light comedy stylings of the humungous, distinctively coiffured muscleman Mr. T. Carnahan doesn’t mess with the premise, while triangulating a mid-east war scenario between good soldiers and evil “Blackforest” mercenaries. The unreliable CIA is working behind the scenes.
As the main slimy CIA agent, Patrick Wilson gets a chance for riffage (“I travel light. Stuff like loyalty doesn’t fit into the overhead bins”). He’s the focus of the only really military-sounding line in the film: about how a CIA man’s habit of wearing body armor into military headquarters tells you everything you need to know about the organization.
The adventure itself, following the prequel pre-title, is essentially the same kind of plot that served The A-Team 25 years ago. Four renegade ex Army rangers are pursuing some currency printing plates in the possession of a bearded Arab. The Arab is as thinly disguised as the ghost in a Scooby Doo episode. The team breaks out of jail and follows the plates to Frankfurt (it’s Vancouver, speaking of thin disguises).
The cast has solid rapport and keeps a straight face. As “Face” Bradley Cooper (the normal guy in The Hangover) ought to be incredibly annoying, but he’s so openly relaxed and self-satisfied that we feel like he shares our disbelief that anyone could be that smooth. As his ex (and the Army’s pursuer of the fugitive A-Team) Jessica Biel is almost as pretty as Cooper. The movie has sense enough to slow down and give the pair some snogging scenes, including one slightly-slowed clinch that might be based on the slo-mo Stewart/Kelly kiss in Rear Window.
The undersized Sharlto Copley of District 9 handles the broadest slapstick as the not-sane pilot Murdock. Playing the paternal senior officer “Hannibal” Liam Neeson (dyed ash-blonde) is a good swap for George Peppard—he’d be a good swap for three George Peppards, actually. By contrast, the exchange of wrestler Quinton “Rampage” Jackson for Mr. T makes for a vibe that’s more scared teddy bear than fierce grizzly.
Soaked until it swells in CG effects, The A-Team uses computer animation as it probably should be used—for ridiculous spectacle, for upside-down helicopter chases, for the tumbling of multi-ton objects as if they were dominoes. It would all look like genius if movie tickets were only $4; still, not many summer films include that flying tank we all tried to draw in the high school cafeteria, nor are any of the other examples of summer dunderhead cinema likely to match The A-Team’s best gag: the last word about 3-D fever. The A-Team’s unofficial motto is a line here, “Overkill is underrated.” Its motif, the shell game, “the old army game,” demonstrates a constant delight in trickery and ingenuity.