REVIEW: The A-Team Pushes the Action-Junk Envelope in All the Wrong Ways
The plot of The A-Team can be summed up thus: Stuff happens, connected by dialogue. Helicopters explode; human beings are nearly incinerated; trucks burst into flames. "Ha ha! Wow! You blew that thing up!" says Bradley Cooper, or Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, or Sharlto Copley -- or maybe they all say it at once, though that would entail some extra coordination that's probably beyond their grasp. Meanwhile, big-name star Liam Neeson looks on, trying to add some class to the joint, though even he seems to know it's a losing battle.
The A-Team, directed by Joe Carnahan (Smokin' Aces), is supposedly based on the TV series of the same name about a ragtag team of Special Forces guys who become soldiers of fortune after a miscarriage of military justice forces them underground. The show featured lots of cartoony violence and a criminally appealing star -- Mr. T -- who was known and loved even by people who never watched the show. (He was on a cereal box, for Pete's sake!)
But this A-Team isn't about charismatic personalities or teamwork or even, really, about cartoony violence. It's simply about blowing stuff up -- which is great as far as it goes, but maybe it's time we asked a little more from our action movies. There's no real plot here: The feeble excuse for one is that a set of plates used to print U.S. currency has been stolen, supposedly by some Middle Eastern baddie, and the A-Team has to get it back. There's lots of double- and triple-crossing, which is supposed to make the story seem intricate when it's really just half-baked and convoluted.
But let's say you don't even care about the story; all you care about is the action. Good news for moviegoers who prefer trailers to actual movies: The A-Team qualifies as the first real movie-length trailer. It's cut together in such a way that we can get the gist of the story by piecing together shards of scenes and images as we go along, without really having to pay attention to the dialogue or any overarching narrative flow. So much stuff is blown up, crashed, or smashed to smithereens that the movie stops throwing off any kind of visceral charge early on; instead, it lulled me into a glassy-eyed stupor. In fact, I'm starting to wonder if The A-Team isn't actually close to brilliant, in terms of its complete lack of regard for coherence, visual excitement or basic character mechanics. The movie is so willfully, perversely unconstructed (as opposed to deconstructed) that it becomes a sort of tone poem, opaque and unknowable.
But I'm afraid I'm giving it too much credit. The A-Team would be more enjoyable if its stars had any charm, or if, five minutes after leaving the theater, we could remember anything about what their characters were like. Copley (who starred in last year's low-budget sci-fi hit District 9) is Murdock, the crazy pilot. Cooper is Face, so called because he's always sucking one. (Jessica Biel wanders through the movie, lost and underused, as one of his old love interests.) B.A. Baracus is played by former UFC light heavyweight champ Jackson, who has almost nothing to do except scowl and look brawny. And Neeson struggles not-so-valiantly in the George Peppard role as the cigar-chomping Hannibal Smith.
I have renewed respect for Neeson since he started taking roles in trashier movies: I loved watching him knock heads in Pierre Morel's joyously disreputable Taken. Roles like these loosen him up, and in the opening sequence of The A-Team -- in which he almost magically dispatches a duo of snarling Rottweilers without harming them -- I thought he, and the movie, might be fun.
But he, and the movie, only ground me down. Neeson barely registers as a presence here. (I kind of remember Cooper, because of his radioactive glowing teeth.) The movie is cut in such a way that it doesn't really contain scenes; it's more like a bundle of dangling participles. That's not good for actors, especially a performer like Neeson, who's at his best, even in a total piece of crap, when he can inject a little soul here and there. There's no room for soul in The A-Team. Even in the context of junky-fun action adventures, this one hits a new low. It's a worst-case scenario for the way action movies are headed: It's all action and no movie.