Movies based on TV shows are often some of the most painful offerings studios have to offer. Whether suffering through the big-screen versions of The Beverly Hillbillies or Car 54, Where Are You?, My Favorite Martian or this summer’s mega-bomb MacGruber, the ratio of awful adaptations to successful ones is vastly disproportional.
Of course, once in awhile, some work: Wayne’s World, The Blues Brothers and (at least financially) the Mission: Impossible films come to mind. But with the new film version of The A-Team, Fox has concocted a wildly uneven yet (at many moments) even more wildly entertaining edition of the ridiculously fun ‘80s NBC series that manages to both disappoint and enthrall action fans within the span of a rollicking two hours.
Series purists may find plenty to grouse about, as the film kicks off with a somewhat-different take on the group, having Col. Hannibal Smith (played by Liam Neeson here, and George Peppard on TV) meet B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson here, and the immortal Mr. T on TV) for the first time, as he forces him to let him hitch a ride en route to saving his friend “Faceman” (Bradley Cooper here [editor's note: check out a Q&A with Cooper], and Dirk Benedict on TV). They are immediately at odds before bonding over their mutual Army Rangers tattoos, a trait they share with Faceman and their final member, an insane chopper pilot named “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley of District 9 here, and Dwight Schultz on TV).
The tattoo discovery and subsequent bonding is a bit heavy-handed and produced unintended chuckles from the audience, and the opening action set-piece involving rescuing Faceman from Mexican killers features both underwhelming action and annoying rap-rock on the soundtrack. Just when the film seems to be mired in bad writing and an obnoxious sensory overload, however, something starts to click.
Once the storyline jumps 10 years from the opening action to the present, where the A-Team is mixed in with U.S. troops in Iraq, it quickly finds its footing. A CIA agent named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) enlists Hannibal to bring the team out on a mission to find and retrieve U.S. currency-making plates stolen by Iraqi soldiers during the first Gulf War, and which are now in danger of falling into even worse hands.
The team pulls off the plate retrieval, only to have a surprise twist occur that results in their being accused of high crimes, put on trial by the military and sent to individual prisons scattered around the planet. When they eventually get a chance to escape and save the day, the resulting four breakouts are again highly entertaining, although nothing tops a sequence in which the guys wind up in an aerial dogfight with two U.S. fighter drone jets with heat-seeking missiles, while flying a tank. Crazier still is the sight of Faceman popping open the tank roof and manning a machine-gun turret against the drones.
Yes, you read right: they fly a tank. The sequence is absurd, over-the-top, and utterly amazing—to my mind one of the best action scenes I’ve ever witnessed, and it’s nearly matched just minutes later with an incredible heist and shootout involving the skyscrapers and streets of Berlin. Director/co-writer Joe Carnahan (the also audaciously entertaining Smokin’ Aces) is fast becoming a major force to be reckoned with.
Hannibal always conceives the plans, famously intoning “I love it when a plan comes together,” and this one is a doozy. Throughout the film, the various “plans” are staged in a fashion taken from the Clooney-era Oceans Eleven films: as they huddle to learn the plans, the screen jumps between the high-octane action that results, and the discussion of the plan. As each step is spelled out, we see the actual result take hold. The combined effect is riveting and dynamic.
Unfortunately, the climax—set at the Port of Los Angeles—starts out fun but devolves into an often-incoherent blend of CGI effects and shadowy lighting that obscures some portions of the action. This is particularly unnerving when it comes to the hand-to-hand combat of B.A., considering that “Rampage” Jackson is an Ultimate Fighting champion, but it represents only a couple minutes of screen time and the film still rewards those who stay through the end of the credits with amusing cameos from some of the original A-Team actors.
Mr. T famously declined to be a part of the new film, complaining that the violence was too graphic and that it also had too much sex. That complaint is baffling in one respect, as there are no sex scenes whatsoever, but his take on the violence might hold some interest for concerned parents. No one gets really brutalized, but the action is definitely more intense and edge-of-your-seat, and plenty of people die non-graphically from getting shot (which didn’t happen in the show, to an almost laughable extent).
Regarding the cast, all four of the stars do a great job with their characters, adding an impressive zing to both their dialogue and the action scenes. Cooper is particularly good, however, as his Faceman not only has to be funny and daring, but also has some solid romantic tension with a female Army officer (Jessica Biel) who once shared a romance with him but is now out to bring them down when she’s misled to believe the Team are the bad guys.
Overall, The A-Team movie is so incredibly good in its spectacular center that it overcomes its shoddy opening and end climax to still be well worth the price of admission. I would pity the fool who missed out on the tank scene in particular.