Review: The A-Team

In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

It's been 27 years since THE A-TEAM premiered after Super Bowl XVII in 1983. Featuring Dirk Benedict as Faceman, George Peppard as team leader Hannibal, Dwight Schultz as "Howling Mad" Murdock and Mr. T as B.A. Baracus, the show went on to become a pop cultural phenom, spawning catchphrases and a merchandising bonanza.

Although the show was a hit, THE A-TEAM wasn't known for having sophisticated plots or, with its baddie of the week storytelling, intriguing villains. With most of each episode’s budget going to explosions and stuff to go boom, the settings for each episode were so generic and nondescript, the writers rarely bothered to tell you what town the A-Team was supposed to be in.

What THE A-TEAM did have was a memorable theme, even more memorable characters, a bloodless and deathless approach to violence that made the show kid friendly, an ensemble whose chemistry others have tried, and mostly have failed, to replicate in other properties, and a sense of fun.

Question is, would a big budget feature survive the transition, retaining the elements that made the show a hit, or would the jump in size magnify the show's weaknesses? The answer is yes and yes.

In casting, the creative team overcame the most difficult task, finding actors who could emulate what Peppard, Benedict, Schultz and Mr. T did without devolving into mere imitation.

Among the new recruits, Liam Neeson as Hannibal and Bradley Cooper as Faceman are the standouts and seem to be enjoying themselves the most. Lacking the natural charisma Mr. T brought to the role, Quinton Jackson still makes a good B.A., proving that the shoes weren’t impossible to fill. The last time we saw Sharlto Copley he was in last summer’s blockbuster hit DISTRICT 9 and now sans mustache and rocking an American accent, he’s amped up to 11 and is unrecognizable as Murdock. Collectively, this motley crew is a blast to watch on screen.

When director Joe Carnahan (SMOKING ACES, NARC) focuses on his ensemble cast the movie clicks. Whenever he breaks up the team, as he does during a way too lengthy prison stretch in the second act, the film’s energy dissipates and proceedings turn into a slog.

Adding to that feeling of "can we skip this, it's boring", was the decision to have not one, not two, but three villains, each with their own poorly conceived reason for existing.

Also on scripting duty, Carnahan, along with co-writers Brian Bloom and Skip Woods, attempts to give the feature version of the A-Team antagonists who are just as capable as the quartet to tangle with. Regrettably, the bad guys are still just as inept, clueless and bad shots as their small screen counterparts; they just have better toys and bigger guns.

And the plot?

On one hand, it's understandable why Carnahan chose to open  with a Mexican set prologue. Individually, the beats in the prologue do a decent, to sometimes great, job of introducing us to the characters and their personalities and setting the tone--i.e. please feel free to smile, this is meant to be fun.

On the other, as action beats and taken as a whole, these same moments don't gel to make the prologue a compelling tale in its own right. It means the movie doesn't really start for almost twenty minutes, and double that before we get to see our first bonafide A-Team mission--and what is arguably the best section of the film bar none.

However, that same mission and the frame job that results from it, while great, isn't the most compelling catalyst to build a film around. Hannibal sitting in prison seething for revenge and B.A. trying to decide if he's a man of peace or of war,  contradicts the movie's opening assertion that this is all meant to be a wacky fun thrill ride. More importantly, it betrays the affable spirit of the original, giving the film an unneeded mean streak.

So the final verdict? As a movie, THE A-TEAM isn't totally boring, nor is it entirely engaging. As a potential franchise, let's hope whoever helms the sequel cracks open a few of the DVD box sets and takes better notes.