Admittedly, the bar is set pretty low for movies based on t.v. series. The gold standard for this kind of venture is The Fugitive, a cinematic translation so skillfully rendered that it can stand apart from its t.v. origins. The genre’s pitfalls are best represented by the film version of The Dukes Of Hazzard, which misunderstands its source material so completely you wonder if anyone involved ever watched the show. Most t.v. show adaptations fall somewhere between those two poles and, if you’ve seen enough of them, you learn to hope for the best while bracing for the worst.
Thus, it’s safe to say no one was expecting much from a movie version of The A-Team. Even its devoted fans would be quick to admit that the original show was prime-time junk food at its most frivolous but it had a cool story hook at its core. Joe Carnahan’s film version wisely respects that key hook: in other words, the four free-thinking army men who prop up the basic wrongfully-accused-good-guys-on-the-run concept – grizzled yet brilliant tactician Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), girl-happy charmer Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper), all-purpose tough guy Bosco “B.A.” Baracus (Quinton Jackson) and crazy but resourceful pilot Murdock (Sharlto Copley).
However, Carnahan places these four archetypes into a scenario with more scope and bombast than a t.v. show could support. A breezy opening act introduces our heroes and gives them an origin story that doubles as the film’s first action setpiece. Several missions later, the real story begins near the end of the Iraq War with Hannibal being recruited by slippery CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) to secretly retrieve a set of purloined plates for U.S. currency from the enemy forces.
The team pulls off the heist with skill but are outwitted by Pike (Brian Bloom), a nasty mercenary who steals the plates and frames them for the death of an officer. A few months later, Lynch visits Hannibal in prison and ‘unofficially’ offers him a chance to get their nemesis. Hannibal busts out of the joint, does the same for his cohorts and they go after their enemy as they are chased by an armed forces squad led by Sosa (Jessica Biel), who was once involved with Faceman. Cue the plot twists, bullets, shattering glass and explosions…
The smartest choice that Carnahan made in reworking The A-Team for the big screen is avoiding the temptation to reinvent the wheel. He does not try to transform it into a serious film nor does he reduce it to some smirky self-parody. Instead, he is savvy enough to realize that the real draw is the combination of the four personalities that drives the team. He builds an expansive but easy-to-follow plot that highlights his quartet to nice effect, allowing their personalities to be the engine that drives this machine.
Better yet, Carnahan has cast the film perfectly. Neeson proved he was a top-flight action hero in Taken and he finds a nice variation on it here, offsetting the effortless gravitas he brings to this kind of role with a flair for light humor that works nicely. Similarly, Cooper plays a variation on the rakish charmer persona he’s been perfecting since The Hangover: it might not be anything new but it works here so why mess with it? Copley – who you might remember as the lead in District 9 – delivers a fast, funny Method-style version of Murdock. Jackson, better known as an MMA fighter, is the biggest surprise here. Instead of doing Mr. T-style grandstanding, he actually underplays while delivering the required machismo – and the choice works, making the character more of a team player. All four work together nicely and their rapport gives the movie the contagious sense of fun that Carnahan directs his film towards.
Finally, and most importantly, Carnahan knows how to package the concept so it works. He co-wrote the carefully structured script, which has a few plot twists but always plays fair with the audience and he keeps layers the action, character moments and humor in a precise manner. The one real flaw here is that at least half the action is edited in that blender-style manner that afflicts all too many modern Hollywood action flicks. It’s a shame because he structures these sequences beautifully from a story standpoint, often using Hannibal’s description of his plans as a counterpoint while the plans unfolding before our eyes. That said, this problem isn’t bad enough to ruin the film and when the action does connect – like a really nice setpiece placed in and on the side of a skyscraper – it delivers the goods.
In short, The A-Team is one of the few recent t.v. adaptations that actually finds the right combination of nostalgia and multiplex-sized entertainment. Action editing issues aside, it’s worth a look to action fans.