Review: A-Team’s Action? Aimless, Amusing and Kinda Awesome. (B)

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Oh Kirk Honeycutt: I typically agree with your reviews in the Hollywood Reporter. I would say that more often than not, we’re on the same page when it comes to blockbusters and genre titles.

But when it comes to The A-Team, I’m starting to wonder what you were actually expecting. You give the movie a rather vicious drubbing:  “The film seems nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story…”

All I can say is: I agree with every word you wrote. But I still have no idea where you’re coming from.

The original television series wasn’t a rich and sweeping dramatic canvas; it was a rock ‘em-sock ‘em cartoonish escapade, one with plenty of unnecessary chase sequences and explosions. It was action-fantasy. That’s it. No real story, or intricate characterizations; the chases and booms and smirks were the thing.

And so it is with the movie – a stylized, silly, slap happy action marathon that is at its best when the characters are going wacky and the action is going through the roof. To say that A-Team lacks sufficient dramatic heft is like saying that Twilight has too much brooding and swooning. It is what is, and it excels on its own terms.

Most important to my enjoyment of this particular spectacle was not the depth of character or the intricacy of plot but rather the inventiveness of its humor. And, dear reader, I found myself giggling quite a bit. Director Joe Carnahan (read our interview) has assembled an impressive cadre of acting talent, and then apparently allowed them to run wild with their characters. They get into sticky situations and then find hilarious ways of untangling themselves. The save the country, and go on about their day.

Brilliant cinema? Hardly. But there are times when not-quite-epic filmmaking will do quite nicely. In fact, what’s annoyed me most about recent thundering big-screen epics – Clash of the Titans, I’m talking to you – is that the drama plays out with such grim and drab self-importance. Seriousness becomes oppressive.

For whatever failings it might have, The A-Team prevails in the attitude department. It wins us over by landing the punch lines.

I won’t be the first critic to note the lack of plot. This is an origins story, but those origins are slight at best. Liam Neeson plays Hannibal as a cigar-chomping daredevil, the guy who loves setting up elaborate missions and then watching them play out without a hitch. The crew he’s rangled up are a quirky bunch: Bradley Cooper plays Face as a preening, pervy ladies’ man; Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson plays B.A. Barracus as a tough-on-the-outside-scared-of-flying-on-the-inside short fuse; Sharlto Copley (read our interview) plays Murdock as an unhinged, thoroughly unstable loose cannon. Sit all four men down together for a planning session – or a helicopter ride – and the ensuing cacophony of testosterone, arrogance and wise-cracking is hilarious to behold. (More at Techland: The five greatest movies adapted from video games)

The movie starts in Mexico, with the team dispersed across the country. The A-Team first reunites in memorable Mexican fashion and then jumps forward several years to Green Zone in Iraq, where Hannibal and co. are dispatched on a mission to take down a couple of counterfeiting thugs who are smuggling out of Baghdad the metal plates needed to print untold quantities of American dollars. It’s a tricky mission, involving a helicopter lifting a semi trailer, but nothing compared to the double cross that’s coming. Black Forest, military contractors on the scene in Baghdad, frame the A-Team, steal the money-making plates, and leave our heroes to rot in military prison.

One by one these soldiers of fortune escape, going on to the next mission as renegades, fleeing not only the military that’s hot on their trail but also the CIA that wants those cash plates. They commandeer a plane, get shot down by heat-seeking missiles, and then climb on board the tank that’s in the cargo bay, firing the cannon as they plummet to the Earth as a means of directing the tank into a lake.

Yep, that’s the kind of movie this is. Brisk, brash, whiplash-inducing. And cracking jokes all along the way.

In terms of raw combat, I appreciate the chaos that Carnahan brings to the canvas – and the way he conveys the confusing, conflicting agendas of the CIA, army, military contractors and the true patriots. War’s a messy thing, and the A-team seems to understand that, what else can you do, beyond brainstorm a few zingers? The actors, for their parts, take their caricatures and run with them through the final scene. These are delirious performances, particularly Copley, who makes Murdock a regular stooge, and Cooper, who has never met a crisis that he can’t turn into a flirting session.

The more this quartet mugs for the camera, the more fun this whole macho-fantasia experiment becomes.

If you want real drama this weekend, stay home and catch up on Breaking Bad ahead of the season finale Sunday night. But if you want a popcorn diversion that keeps the explosions big, the action sprawling, and the humor fresh, then saddle up for the A-Team. It’ll never win the best picture Oscar, but then again neither did Star Wars.

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