Sunday, June 20, 2010

Movie Review: "The A-Team"

"Overkill is underrated…”

So says Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson) near the end of “The A-Team,” Joe Carnahan’s ridiculously entertaining update of the popular 1980s television action show. By the time he says this, the characters have already barrel-rolled a helicopter, broken out of three maximum security prisons and flown a tank (you read that correctly)-- and the bazookas, machine guns and firecrackers are still moments away.

At least “The A-Team” practices what it preaches.

Then again, “The A-Team” never shied away from excess. The program, best known for capitalizing on Mr. T’s post-“Rocky III” career, was a testosterone-laden action-comedy centered on four Vietnam vets who, after wrongful imprisonment, went underground as mercenaries. Today it’s best-known for its over-the-top stunts and action sequences—which featured little bloodshed and hardly any death--and a cast of characters who spent just as much time wisecracking as they did solving missions.

It’s no surprise that Carnahan, last seen helming “Smokin’ Aces,” would amp up the stunts and action sequences in this update. What is refreshing, however, is how Carnahan keeps the franchise’s daffy soul intact by spending just as much time letting his actors wisecrack and play around.

Neeson suitably takes over for George Peppard as the calm, stogie-loving team leader Hannibal; he’s first seen freeing himself from the clutches of a Mexican drug cartel and dispatching two guard dogs by handcuffing them together. Neeson’s made a career playing strong, wise mentors and he’s not really doing any heavy lifting here. But the relish with which he declares “I love it when a plan comes together” shows that he’s clearly having fun in what would be an otherwise throwaway role.

Bradley Cooper seems born to place Face, the group’s smooth-talking ladies’ man. Cooper brings the same swagger and sense of humor that served him so well in last year’s “The Hangover,” and replicates Dirk Benedict’s smarm with surprising accuracy; there’s really no one else who could play this part so well. Mixed-martial arts star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson has the unenviable task of taking over for Mr. T as tough guy B.A. Baracus, but shows the requisite blend of intimidation and teddy bear likability to earn the Mohawk. Jackson is even able to bring a touch more character to the role, with a corny but entertaining subplot about B.A. renouncing violence. And yes, he’s still afraid to fly.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is “District 9’s” Sharlto Copley as Murdock, the group’s insane pilot. Switching accents for no apparent reason, speaking through hand puppets and amused by every near-death experience, Copley makes Murdock the film’s most refreshing and entertaining character. He’s so fun to watch that it’s easy to forget that he’s basically just doing the same shtick Dwight Schultz did 30 years ago. Jessica Biel is easy on the eyes, but light on the interest, as a government official hunting down the team, but Patrick Wilson (“Watchmen”) is a hoot as the quirky villain who seems more amused than perturbed at the way the team frustrates his plans.

Carnahan may have let his love for extreme editing and absurd action get away from him with “Aces,” a film I was not particularly fond of, but he finds the right balance for action and comedy here. Rather than turn it dark and edgy, as others may have been tempted to do, he honors the show’s legacy by winking at the audience and letting them know that it’s okay to laugh: it’s meant to be silly. That’s helpful to know when an entire sequence hinges on parachuting a tank to the ground while dodging missiles. The film rushes headlong from one action sequence to the next without giving the audience time to register how over-the-top everything is; in many ways, the film is one exquisitely staged climax after another, each delivered with a flair for the absurd that would make Jerry Bruckheimer proud.

Carnahan makes sure to honor the hallmarks of nearly every “A-Team” episode. The black van makes an appearance and, yes, there are numerous escapes from prisons and mental institutions. New ways are found to trick B.A. into getting onto a plane and even the show’s iconic theme song is incorporated several times. The film’s final sequence, which both sets up a sequel and calls back to the show’s opening credits, is pure nostalgia for ‘80s geeks.

Yet even the uninitiated should have a good time with “The A-Team.” It’s the type of wispy, light-hearted fun that is rarely seen in this age of gritty franchises and reality-laced action dramas. Is it absurd, silly and ridiculous? Sure. But that’s all part of the plan. And I don’t know about you, but I love it when a plan comes together.

Originally published in the June 20 edition of The Source.

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30s, engaged and living in Motown. Wrestling with life, love, faith, art, film, culture and everything in between.