Cherish this moment. There will never be a better movie combining Liam Neeson’s badassery, Bradley Cooper’s smarm, the appealing oddity of District 9’s Sharlto Copley, and UFC champ Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s talent for the body slam. Plus: Jessica Biel. As to the necessity of combining those things in the first place, there is none. Just as there is no reason to plumb the depths of decades-old television for movie properties.
What the A-Team lacks in Mr. T, it more than compensates for in staying true to the show’s original purpose: being stupid and fun.
But here we are. The beauty of making “The A-Team” into a film is that it involves zero risk of masterpiece violation. The TV show was a dumb, fun show for boys. And isn’t that what summer movies are these days?
Depressingly, yes, but it should be said that director Joe Carnahan, formerly of Narc, Smokin’ Aces and diminishing returns, has found a kind of professional stride in The A-Team. If the people he most needs to impress grew up irradiating themselves with episodic Reagan-era fantasies of quirky, righteous, benevolent aggression, so be it. It’s a Carnahan trademark, perhaps, to proceed from the conviction that even silliness deserves some earnestness.
Our stars compliantly assume their positions as the storied special-ops four piece, here established in an origin-myth prologue as if they were trading cards: cardboard, collectible and precious. They all do fine with what they’re given. Jackson has the hardest part just on account of not being Mr. T. But he fits well into the big plan: We don’t really need to understand all that dialogue he drops; we just need to think, Wow, this guy’s so tough, he keeps rocks in his mouth.
Soon enough he and his pals find themselves, in the words of the old show’s narration, “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.” They’re devoted to breaking out, clearing their names and getting by in the meantime as mercenaries with hearts of gold. Notwithstanding one untrustworthy C.I.A. man (Patrick Wilson), their chief opponent seems to be a fellow dark operator (Brian Bloom) with a heart of much less expensive metal. “He’s a thug! He’s a cartoon character!” Neeson snorts.
Undaunted, the team trots along from one violent—yet curiously bloodless—set piece to the next, enjoying each other’s company and abiding the twitchy incoherence of the writing, camerawork and editing. “They specialize in the ridiculous,” Biel says of the boys at one point, and it is amusing to behold the lengths to which The A-Team goes just to subvert our received ideas about, say, physics and nonviolence.
Possibly this obfuscatory impulse is meant to conceal the greater obviousness of it all. Carnahan likes him some shell games, all right, and stages at least two here. Of course, there is a fine line between showmanship and contrivance, and even a movie based on a dumb, fun, enthralling show for boys can easily cross it. How disappointing that the only thing that comes naturally to The A-Team is male chauvinism.