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Non-Review Review: The A-Team

The A-Team is the latest in a long line of attempts to adapt successful television series (preferably from years or decades past) to the big screen. It essentially suffers from the same weaknesses as other adaptations – it struggles with tone. Much as attempting to remake Miami Vice as a dry and overly self-important drug movie was a mistake, or making Starsky & Hutch as a full-blown comedy misunderstood the appeal of the original series, The A-Team feels too much like it’s working with a premise that it isn’t overly familiar with, trying to fit it into the blockbuster mold – it’s essentially trying to cram a round peg into a square hole. The film does have its charms, but it feels distinctly uncomfortable and more than a little uneven.

"'old on lad's, I've... oh, wait, wrong remake..."

The main problem that the movie has is violence. Sure, what people remember about the television show is the iconic character of Mr. T or the really cool van (which only makes a cameo here, because – god forbid – we just couldn’t take the team seriously in that van), but I bet they’d also remember that nobody ever died. Sure, things exploded and cars overturned, but there was always a shot of the bad guys crawling out of the wreckage unharmed. As improbable as it seemed amid all this chaos, it seemed that the good guys managed to their job without ever having to kill anyone.

There were, of course, on-screen deaths. However, there’s a degree of argument as to whether one or two people died on-screen during the show’s tenure (it depends on whether you define falling from a really high window as “dying on-screen”). In the era where CSI and Law & Order go to great pains to kill one (or more) person per hour of television, that’s really something. Sure, it didn’t make any sense that the elite unit managed to do their job without ever even accidentally taking a life, but you accepted it as one of the conceits. Maybe Hannibal was just that good – he’d earned the right to puff on that cigar.

The movie adopts a somewhat more hard-line approach to murder and mayhem, while trying to play off the innocent image of the television show. Hannibal calls out Black Forrest – a mercenary ground intended to stand in for… well, you can guess – as a bunch of “assassins in polo shirts”, and insists that his team are so much more. However, the very first mission the team goes on involves them luring a rogue Mexican general across the United States border so that he can be shot down with due cause – what Hannibal himself claims was the endgame of his plan all along. That sounds suspiciously like covert assassination to me.

Early enough in the movie, team member B.A. finds religion and peace. He vows not to take another life. Indeed, I began to suspect that the movie was going to develop this angle – to suggest that the team had to “grow” into valuing human life, learning that killing didn’t necessarily solve everything. However, this moral development on the part of the team’s “big guy” member was treated as a hurdle – he simply had to learn that it was okay to kill, and he had to learn that by the end of the movie or all would be lost. Now man up and kill somebody. Of course, the main villain of the piece is wanted alive so he can clear the team’s name, but if you’re just an innocent gun-for-hire who is doing what you’re told – you had better watch out, because to this band of mercenaries, you’re fair game.

The reason that the show could get away with its sense of humour was because it didn’t really ever have too much peril. That was the charm – it could be playful because you knew that things were never going to get serious. Nobody was ever going to really play for keeps. Sure, you’d be told that this guy was a hired killer and you’d see a gun or two regularly, but it was all just harmless fun, wasn’t it? And that’s the sense of fun that is so sorely missing from the film. Patrick Wilson steals the show as the smarmy bad guy (he really needs more work, because he’s epic) because he is clearly having fun, but the rest of the movie doesn’t know how serious or how fun it wants or needs to be.

Sadly, they didn't bring their A-game...

The stakes are also so dramatically high that the movie never really feels particularly playful. When Bradley Cooper brings his coy disarming sense of humour to the role of Face, it looks like he’s just being immature amid all the violence and death – you can’t be messing around when lives are on the line, or you just look cold and callous. Liam Neeson plays the lead role of Hannibal deadly serious, and you get the sense that this version of the character might somehow be related to the lead character in Taken, he acts with such authority and conviction. Rampage Jackson is a weak actor (as was Mr. T, to be honest), but the movie doesn’t play to him. Whereas Mr. T’s pantomime style suited the not-too-serious television show, here he looks out of step. Sharlto Copley does his best as Murdoch, but he just can’t make it work.

Despite this, there are some moments which work. I liked the whole set-piece driven finale, as the team attempts to distract the CIA agents with some misdirection in an old shipyard – which gets chaotically fun as one bad guy decides to produce a rocket launcher rather than playing along – but it devolves into random violence again quickly enough. The stunt work is excellent and, one gets the sense, one would have been better suited to put this production team to work on a wholly original project rather than this given adaptation.

There are some nice Easter Eggs to fans. In particular I dug a 3D movie shown to Murdoch, starring “Reginald Barclay”. Barclay was, of course, a character in Star Trek: The Next Generation played by Dwight Schultz. Schultz himself played Murdoch in the television show. Otherwise, we see B.A.’s fear of flying explained in an “origin” sequence. However, these small nods feel ultimately pointless when it seems little effort has been made to capture the spirit of the original television show.

The A-Team is a decent action movie. It’s hardly among the best of the genre, but it’s serviceable. However, as an adaptation, it’s hugely disappointing – it never feels like the Saturday afternoon television show that we all remember.

2 Responses

  1. But…but…Sharlto…

  2. I think Sharlto stole the show, but then again, I’m biased now.

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