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Monday, July 28, 2014

Summer Not-Busters: The A-Team (2010)

Director: Joe Carnahan
Starring: Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley, Patrick Wilson, Jessica Biel
Domestic Gross: $77,222,099

With the exception of Cowboys and Aliens, this week's "not-buster" earned significantly more than all the previous entries (more, even, than a few of the entries put together) in this series. $77 million is no small amount of money when considered on its own, but when considered in the context of a film with a reported $110 million budget, it starts to look woefully inadequate. But even if "profit" wasn't an issue, The A-Team would still qualify as a failure for its lack of cultural impact. The A-Team was very clearly designed to be the opening salvo in a franchise, yet plans for a sequel were scrapped sometime in 2011. Do you know how unsuccessful a film like this has to be to not get a sequel? Hollywood loves sequels so much that it sometimes seems to forget that there's any other kind of movie. But there will be no The A-Team 2 and, to be perfectly honest, I'd actually forgotten that The A-Team movie was even a thing until I went looking for summer box office bombs and was reminded that this was something that happened. Now that I've seen it, I believe I shall promptly forget.

The A-Team, which the ending suggests is itself just one long prologue, begins with a Mexican-set prologue in which the team in question - comprised of John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson), Templeton "Faceman" Peck (Bradley Cooper), B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), and "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley) - first comes together. Eight years later the film picks up with the team in Iraq, where they're recruited by CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) for a black ops operation to recover U.S. Treasury plates from Iraqi insurgents. However, they aren't the only team in pursuit of the plates, as the private Black Forest group, headed by Brock Pike (Brian Bloom), and the DCIS are also after the prize. Faceman's ex-girlfriend, Captain Sosa (Jessica Biel), is heading the investigation for DCIS and warns Faceman in no uncertain terms that his team is to stay away from the operation, but naturally they do the opposite which, in turn, leads them to fall right into Black Forest's trap and end up court martialed and dishonorably discharged after the plates are lost and their superior officer General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) is killed.

After six months spent in military prison, Hannibal strikes a deal with Lynch, who has learned that Pike has the plates and is trying to sell them to an Arab dealer. Lynch agrees to help Hannibal escape from prison so that he can break the rest of his team out and they can retrieve the plates, leading to a series of action set pieces in which the A-Team: steals an aircraft which gets shot down by drones, "flies" a tank, find Pike and his group and engage them in a shoot out, get the plates, find out that they're at the center of a big conspiracy, get double-crossed by Lynch, make a deal with Sosa, and engage in a massive firefight in and around a bunch of shipping containers resulting in plenty of explosions, some hand-to-hand combat, and one final trick which brings the bad guys to justice. But all of that doesn't necessarily bring an end to the team's problems vis-a-vis clearing their names, reinstating their positions, or keeping them out of jail, which means that they're going to have to pull off one more stunt to stay ahead of the game and maintain their freedom.

When it comes to adapting TV series to film, particularly when the adaptation comes so long after the TV series has ended so that the original and the remake exist in different eras with different cultural sensibilities, there are basically two options. One is to proceed in a straight-faced manner that tries, mostly for the sake of using nostalgia as a marketing tool, to carry over as much from the TV series to the film as can be managed given changes in cultural context, but is really only taking the premise of the original and forcing it into the mold of a standard action movie/comedy/whatever. The other is to make the project a self-referential thing that, while bending itself to fit with current popular tropes, winks at the audience and jokes about the now outdated tropes of the original and/or the ridiculousness of the original's premise (see either of the Jump Street films as an example). The A-Team follows the first strategy, treating the premise of a team of ex-soldiers on the run from their government for a crime they didn't commit with utmost seriousness, though it ultimately jettisons the second half of the premise of the TV series, insofar as the group are not yet "soldiers of fortune" (this is, after all, an "origin story"). Although it makes a few half-hearted nods towards humor, or at least a sort of feigned lightness meant to signify that this is all a lot of fun, The A-Team is ultimately rather stone-faced in unfolding its story and its attempts to reference the TV series through in-jokes often feel forced. Let it never be said that there is no skill behind the "Mr. T" persona, because every time the film forces Jackson to work the word "fool" into conversation in this movie, it just feels more and more ridiculous, which is somewhat ironic given the pains the film takes to tone down the B.A. Baracus character to make him less flamboyantly ridiculous. I have only the vaguest memories of the TV series but what I remember is Mr. T because his whole persona, with the mohawk and gold chains and catch-phrase, is bizarre and unique (though not really great if you need to fly under the radar and elude capture). The A-Team movie doesn't really want any part of that, in large part because it would be nearly impossible to find an actor with enough confidence and charisma to pull off a replica of that look and persona without reducing it to sheer parody, but once you strip that stuff away (the mohawk remains, for the most part but is transformed into a lazy means of creating the thinnest of characterizations: when Baracus has the mohawk, he's in full badass, ready to kill mode; when he doesn't have the mohawk, he's a man of peace and nonviolence) you're left with next to nothing and the film has no interest in creating anything to fill that void. As a result, Baracus is the character whose role throughout the film is basically to whine and have to be tricked into participation (he hates flying so there's a running gag in which the other members of the team have to either drug or deceive him to get him on an aircraft). Far from being a dynamic character, he's a complete non-entity.

But, then again, Baracus being a non-entity as a character makes him the rule, rather than the exception in The A-Team, which allows every character one-note and then has them play it incessantly. The film is so busy with its many plots and counter-plots and crosses and double crosses, and all the numerous interests after the story's McGuffin (to wit: the A-Team, the DCIS, Black Forest, the CIA, and multiple combinations thereof), that it doesn't really have room to allow the characters to actually be characters and instead just shuffles them from one inelegant action set-piece to the next so that the performances are drowned out beneath the film's sound and fury. Even director Joe Carnahan, whose low-key man vs. nature thriller The Grey I counted among my Top 10 for 2012, seems overwhelmed here by the sheer size and magnitude of the action which, like so many such sequences in films now, unfold as an incomprehensible mess of quick cuts that seemed designed to obscure the action rather than make anything of it. Although it all looks like it was very expensive and time consuming to pull off, there's something just so perfunctory feeling about every bit of action in this film and, in fact, the film as whole. While it can be argued that no film "needs" to have been made, The A-Team does nothing to make the case for its own existence. It's as generic as most action movies that are thrown together and released in any given summer with only the fact that it has a tertiary connection to something people kind of remember from the 80s to single it out. It has neither wit nor style to recommend it and though it makes superficial attempts to update the premise by folding the war in Iraq and the private military security firm Blackwater into the story, it does so without using those elements to bring any manner of depth to the narrative. The A-Team is just another shallow, loud, and ultimately pointless exercise in things going boom.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: It certainly could have been a blockbuster - I mean, worse films have made more money - but it would have been one of those instantly forgotten blockbusters that makes money but gains no traction in the cultural imagination.

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