It’s pretty simple, really. If you don’t like action films, don’t go see The A-Team. That is, if you complain when a film has explosions, and a lot of shooting and punching and special effects crashes and whatnot, and no in-depth character studies, and a plot structure that goes blah-blah-blah-whatever-fight-scene, then you don’t like action films, and you shouldn’t go see a film like The A-Team. There, I hope I’ve finally cleared up this issue for all the professional film critics and non-professional everybody’s-a-critic critics who continue to go see genre films so they can say how much they hate all the traits associated with genre films.
But for those of us who like action, we can talk sensibly. Is The A-Team a dumb film? Yes. How dumb is it? It’s incredibly dumb—nay, exuberantly dumb. And who was it who said, “Exuberance is beauty?” William Blake, maybe. Or somebody just as good.
Homer and Bart Simpson would’ve been first in line to see The A-Team, had they been real. Wait, they are real, so let’s say, had they been fleshly beings.
The A-Team is based on the old TV show, which I never watched. But it was impossible for any sentient being in the 1980s to remain totally unaware of Mr. T, “I pity the fool,” the smug lead guy with the cigar, lots of explosions with no casualties, and a general air of cheesy pro-military fantasy. From what I can gather, the movie takes a lot from the show, chews it over, pumps it up. Our heroes are ultimate badass soldiers railroaded “for a crime they didn’t commit,” who are forced to go rogue and all that. Quinton “Rampage” Jackson plays B.A. Baracus, Mr. T’s part, but he seems like a softer, wider version, who never yells “I pity the fool!” but has PITY and FOOL tattooed on his knuckles. Everyone’s new favorite action hero, lumbering Liam Neeson, forever ennobled by his stellar work in Taken, plays cigar-puffing Hannibal Smith, the old George Peppard part. Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) is ladies’ man “Face” Peck, and Sharlto Copley (brilliant in District 9) is the usefully crazy flying ace “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock. This is impressive casting, suggesting that somebody behind the scenes is pretty smart about playing dumb.
The standard line about why action films are dumb is because they are designed to play all over the world, so there can’t be anything too complicated or language-specific in them. The mandate is show, not tell. Since silent films had exactly the same mandate, and lots of those are intelligent as hell, I’m not sure this dismissal of action films holds water, or that show-not-tell is a bad general mandate for cinema anyway. But bracketing all that, The A-Team really goes the extra mile for visual clarification whether it’s necessary or not, and a certain giddy hilarity results.
For example, there’s a wonderful scene involving Baracus’ prison conversion to non-violence, in which he quotes aloud from a book of Gandhi’s teachings. Hannibal Smith is trying to reason him out of all this crazy compassion talk, and he comes up with a Gandhi aphorism that is sorta PRO-violence. (Something about how non-violence is no good if it’s just a cover for impotence and general weaniness.) Hannibal says Gandhi wasn’t afraid to fight for what he believed in. So now you have the fun of waiting for Baracus to think this over and get inspired to punch somebody’s head off in Gandhi’s name. The scene ends with a close-up of the book in Baracus’ hands, with a big picture of Mahatma Gandhi on it, lest you think they’d been discussing the philosophy of Ernest T. Gandhi of Scranton, PA. This makes you hug yourself and giggle helplessly for joy.
Another example that might be even better: Face is allowed to mastermind the climactic action plan as a test of his ability to not make an ass of himself, or something. He demonstrates how it’ll work to the other Team members via the old shell game, using three upended red plastic picnic cups hiding one ball-bearing. Flashforward to the action sequence itself as the plan is carried out, featuring three red train cars moved about by cranes, one of which contains Hannibal Smith. So there’s no real confusion about how the demo relates to what’s going on. But director Joe Carnahan keeps cutting back to the demo, then forward to the action, then back to the demo, while Face is intoning the mantra “Distraction, Diversion, Division” over and over.
Some of our big box-office comedies aren’t this funny.
This is not to suggest that there are no confusing elements to The A-Team, because if you bothered trying to track the minutia of the plot you’d be flummoxed. It’s just that action fans generally know when to tune out. There’s all the yadda-yadda-yadda in the set-up, suggesting a complex world of schemers out there, all cartoonishly bad: Mexican gangsters, the CIA, the US military brass, the rogue “Black Forest” mercenaries, pretty much everybody except the A-Team guys. Some plot: apparently Saddam Hussein’s secret stash of plates for counterfeiting US currency has been unearthed and is about to get smuggled out of Iraq by one corrupt faction or another, which would mean the terrorists win, or something. It doesn’t matter. Anything we really need to know will be shoved graphically into our faces, like the solemn moment early in the film when Hannibal and Baracus meet for the first time and bond by flashing their ranger tattoos at each other in reverent, extended close-ups.
There are lots of villains, but the two main ones are of the horrible weanie variety: Patrick Wilson plays the CIA schmuck called Lynch and Brian Bloom plays the swaggering head of “Black Forest,” aka Blackwater. Bloom is amusing in the scene when the CIA are trying to liquidate him and he keeps critiquing their lack of macho killing style.
Though it’s probably not necessary, just to be safe I should emphasize that if you insist on a semblance of realism in your action film, The A-Team isn’t for you. When it comes to the “plans” Hannibal concocts that always magically “come together,” Mary Poppins is more realistic. The plans all seem to involve gathering a bunch of random junk like in a big scavenger hunt, then doing many impossible stunts that require rappelling down the sides of things, and crashing through plate glass windows, and skidding on motorcycles, and shooting a million rounds of ammo, and concluding with an air rescue of some sort, which is always funny because Baracus is afraid of flying.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
There’s a woman in the movie, by the way. The tough army careerist Captain Sosa is played by Jessica Biel, and this absurdity perfectly matches the tone of the rest of the film. Biel stalks around in fabulous but severe outfits like black-leather coat-dresses and spike heels, trying to keep her prominent lips compressed in a professional frown, failing, and reverting to the open-mouth gape which is the natural expression of goldfish, blow-up dolls, and ambitious screen starlets. (She’s fine, given the circumstances—it’s not her fault the fish-lips thing is standard.) Captain Sosa is one of Face’s many ex-girlfriends, of course, so there’s a B-story about what the deal was there.
Director Joe Carnahan did Smokin’ Aces, which I heard sucked horribly, though maybe the rotten title alone gave people that impression, I don’t know. Like many contemporary action directors, he favors the hyper-cutty editing style, but he’s generally able to preserve the sense of what’s going on, which is almost always goofy and fantastical, involving flying tanks and bulletproof heroes and all sorts of outrageous CGI-enabled assing around. His filmmaking motto seems to be the same as Hannibal Smith’s plan-making motto: when Baracas asks Hannibal why they have to amass so much noisy, showy, ridiculous junk to complete their missions, Hannibal gloats, “Because overkill is underrated, my friend.”
And there are people who go to action films specifically to celebrate that idea. I was at the first screening of the day, 10:30 am, to watch them shuffle in. Several loner men, a few skulking teenagers, one or two families who decided The Karate Kid remake was too sedate for them, and who tended to chuckle in unison at the film’s more ludicrous stunts. There was a towering six-foot-fourish guy in my row who toted his two-year-old daughter into the screening. She had on a little dress and a lot of those knobby twisty things tying up her hair, and she seemed a bit stunned by the whole loud experience. I bet she’ll be proud of it later, when her peers are naming the first films they can remember seeing, things like Up and Shrek 4, and she can top them all by proclaiming “The A-Team!”
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