'A-Team' Is a C-Minus Movie
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
If I were an elementary school teacher and "The A-Team" were one of my students, I would have to send it home with a report card explaining that while it is bright and enthusiastic and outgoing, it also needs to focus on concentration and the basics of good communication and presentation. But I am not an elementary school teacher, and "The A-Team" is not a plucky, bright-eyed kid, so I instead have to say that Joe Carnahan's film version of the campy, crash-filled action TV series that ran from 1983 to 1987 has everything it needs to succeed (great cast, nice plot, strong technique), but also lacks a few things that would make it truly excel. Bluntly, if you put "The Losers" and "The A-Team" on a hypothetical balance (both broad, bright, swaggering action films in which professional but personable military men seek to clear their names after rogue intelligence agents besmirch their honor), I'd say that "The Losers" would be the winner and "The A-Team" would be the loser. But it would be close.
Actually, it might be so close that it'd be irrelevant. A fellow film writer and I had a 40-minute conversation on the topic, with him saying "The A-Team" was better than "The Losers" and me saying the reverse, and, while we each had our points, it's not like either of us was going to ruin our friendship over our positions. "The A-Team" is fast and fun, and if there are ways in which, in my mind, it could be better, I still have no philosophical or moral objection to the cold-lock certainty that it will make a bunch of money, as that means the people in it, and behind it, will get to make other movies and Hollywood's wobbly, wicked circle of life will go on.
Liam Neeson is Hannibal Smith, team leader and strategist extraordinaire. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is B.A. Baracus, white-knuckle wheelman and bare-knuckle brawler. Sharlto Copley is pilot "Howlin' Mad" Murdock, sharp as a tack and crazy as a football bat. Bradley Cooper is Templeton "Face" Peck, charmer and rogue. We see them meet in Mexico; we see them on the job in Iraq years later, retrieving engraving plates that could be used to cripple America's economy. We see them lose the plates and be accused of the theft of the plates and go to jail. We see them run. Run, A-Team, run.
But the simple plot isn't the problem, it's the execution. For every low-to-the-ground action sequence that works (a Baghdad hijacking, a Frankfurt infiltrate-and-seize op) there's a computer-effects-heavy stunt sequence that feels a little at odds with the feel of the film (a plane-to-tank aerial escapade, a crane-powered shell game at the Los Angeles docks). Director Carnahan, who infamously spent three months developing "Mission: Impossible III" before clashes with producer-star Tom Cruise saw him exiled from the project, finally gets to flex his big-budget, big-boy muscles after gritty films like the excellent "Narc" and the not-so-excellent "Smokin' Aces." Carnahan is fine on the straightaway when he can put the hammer down, but he's not so good this time around at the little things that are the moviemaking equivalent of parallel parking. Why can't the camera move back a little so we can better see the fight scenes? Why is it so important that Face mature and grow and take charge of the final plan? Who are the three parties in pursuit of the film's MacGuffin, and why is it so hard to care about, or distinguish between, them? Why does Jessica Biel's part as the Army investigator (and ex-lover to Face) on the A-Team's trail feel so perfunctory and rushed, like a lemon wedge of femininity placed at the edge of a bucket of testosterone as a garnish?
At two hours long, "The A-Team" also feels crowded, jumping locations globally (while nonetheless all shot in British Columbia) and wedging in some character development for some of its four leads. Face learns responsibility. B.A. briefly flirts with pacifism before coming back around to neck-breakin' righteousness at the finale. Hannibal and Murdock -- look cool? Every performer here is good-to-adequate (Jackson's got the physique of Mr. T, but not the loony, loud charisma), but the cast feels like a bar band with so much sound and fury that no one gets a chance to play a solo. And again, these feel like quibbles. There are some nice laughs in the film, and a few great action sequences, and everyone is smiling and sweaty and swaggering and starlike. I just can see in my head how "The A-Team" could have been better: a decision made differently, a draft or two of rewrite to knock the rough edges off the script, pruning the characters and plotlines around the team back a little. And that vision of the superior film that it might have been slightly obscures my view of the pretty good film that it is. Repeatedly, "The A-Team" offers us Neeson's delivery of the line made famous by George Peppard in the original show; and while Hannibal may love it when a plan comes together, I love it when a movie does. And "The A-Team" is so busy trying to connect with the audience's hearts, minds and wallets that it never quite connects with itself.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.