The Eh Team
During the ‘80s, I watched The A-Team on a weekly (and later, daily) basis. Two decades later, I can’t remember the plot of a single episode. At 5 p.m. on June 20, 2010, I watched The A-Team the movie. Two hours later, I’m struggling to remember the plot.
Appropriate? I guess, if one’s expectations for a movie are defined by the limitations of its schlocky source material. I didn’t expect much more from director Joe Carnahan’s (Smokin’ Aces) reboot than a rehash of cartoon-deep character quirks, a throwaway plot and some over-the-top action scenes, but I was hoping it would be so stupid it would be fun. Unfortunately, it’s so stupid that it’s depressing.
On paper, the producers got the casting right: Bradley Cooper has the looks to play Face (Dirk Benedict in the original), Quinton “Rampage” Jackson seems mean and cuddly enough to fill Mr. T’s shoes as B.A. Baracus and Sharlto Copley was effortlessly funny in District 9, suggesting he could easily improve upon Dwight Schultz’s annoying Murdock. The most questionable call was Liam Neeson as Col. Hannibal Smith (George Peppard on the show), but the trailers seemed to lay that concern to rest. With cigar in mouth, hands on hips and smirk on face, Neeson appeared to capture Smith’s joyful sense of authority. Trailers can be deceiving.
Cooper specializes in playing cocksure charmers, but here he comes off as a full-blown douchebag, whooping in every action scene like a fratboy who shotgunned a beer. Jackson is an amateur and it shows (he’s neither mean nor cuddly), and Copley is every bit as obnoxious—and unfunny—as Schultz. Even Leeson is much too serious as Smith, with none of the grandfatherly charm Peppard brought to the role. The less said about their chemistry, the better.
As in the show, the team is a bunch of former Army Rangers “framed for a crime they didn’t commit” who operate outside the law righting wrongs and building tanks out of lawnmowers. But the movie takes a while to get to that point—it takes the whole movie, in fact—focusing instead on the team’s origins. I haven’t the foggiest idea why Carnahan and his fellow screenwriters Brian Bloom and Skip Woods chose this route. The team’s origin on the show was little more than a functional rationale to explain why such an eclectic group of military experts spent most of its time fighting rural bullies in small towns (noting that the budget limited the show to settings that can be staged in the Hollywood hills would not have been persuasive to preteen boys like myself).
The team meets in an amusingly preposterous, if overly long, opening sequence in Mexico, where Smith has been kidnapped by corrupt federales, B.A. is picking up his beloved black van from an auto shop (Why Mexico? Why not?), Murdock is a patient in a mental hospital and Face is about to be set on fire for stealing the wife of a drug kingpin. After carjacking B.A.’s van, Hannibal sees his Ranger tattoo, and the opening notes of an adagio version of the show’s theme song tinkle on the soundtrack. An unshakeable bond has been born. Enough to persuade B.A. to join Hannibal on a death-tempting journey to save Face and flee the country in a helicopter piloted by Murdock. Entertaining? Yes. Coherent? No.
And that’s pretty much the film’s high-water mark for storytelling. The action picks up again eight years later, after the group has returned to the Army and is on the verge of withdrawing from a successful run doing clandestine operations in Iraq. Here they bump into a whole cast of military types with uncertain agendas, including Patrick Wilson as a CIA spook, Jessica Biel as a Department of Defense something-something (and former lover of Face, of course), Bloom as a private military contractor and Gerald McRaney as Smith’s commanding general and best friend. A plan that seemed to come together somehow unravels, and the team soon finds themselves court-martialed and sent to various military prisons… “for a crime they didn’t commit.” As they escape from prison and attempt to restore their military honor, the team engages in—and suffers from—all manner of false alliances and -crosses of various multiples. Why this leads the team to fight for the little guy and build bazookas out of tea kettles is never explained, or even contemplated.
In the original show, when Hannibal uttered at the end of every episode, “I love it when a plan comes together,” we had a sense it was a goof, a nod to the audience’s knowledge that the team’s escapes were as improbable and implausible as they were inevitable. But the movie elevates Hannibal’s catchphrase to gospel, doting obsessively on his genius for planning. With the exception of the opening sequence and the flying tank scene made famous in the trailers, every action sequence is narrated and intercut with scenes of the team plotting their moves, sapping the action of whatever suspense it might have had. Worse, Carnahan has picked up Michael Bay’s dismal habit of filming fight sequences in excessive close-up, rendering them nearly unintelligible. Even the tank scene, which is fun and inventive, is not as good as it could be. Carnahan inexplicably doesn’t show the tank actually leave the plane—a blown opportunity to exploit our instinctive fear of falling from the sky in a heavy metal object.
After seeing The A-Team with two friends, one of them defended the movie by saying, “It doesn’t take itself seriously.”* It’s a common defense of movies drawn from stupid source material, as if a filmmaker’s attitude towards his material can somehow inoculate the film from any kind of critical response. It implies that not taking something seriously is equivalent to having fun (as well as its opposite), turning critics—or any discerning viewer—into a prissy puss incapable of having fun. But my problem with The A-Team isn’t that it doesn’t take itself seriously. It’s that it’s no fun. To my mind, The A-Team doesn’t take having fun seriously enough.
* He has since concurred that it’s dreadful.