After a while, you start wondering exactly how many more of these kind of movies Hollywood can do. Yesterday’s disposable network television mainstay — with all attendant foggily positive memories intact — becomes today’s disposable fodder for the summer blockbuster demolition derby. It makes sense in a way, with the studio’s proven inability to create any new action franchises from whole cloth without reaching into the world of television, books, or amusement park rides (we’re a long way from the days of Lethal Weapon), what else are they going to do?
All that being said, when the stars of The A-Team find themselves plummeting to earth in an M-1 tank from many thousands of feet in the air, their fall only barely slowed by one overtaxed parachute, and they begin blasting away with the cannon — first to steer and then to slow their rate of descent — it would take a heart of stone not to find some spark of giggly enjoyment.
Bereft of inspiration or not, Narc director Joe Carnahan’s reboot of the 1980’s Stephen J. Cannell series is a rare thing these days: the action flick that knows its limits; this is probably due to it not being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Certainly there are moments of Bruckheimer-itis here, with Carnahan’s propensity for sunset-hued helicopter shots and an irritating Action Movie 101 score by Alan Silvestri. But Carnahan completely disregards the Bruckheimer bigger-is-better school of filmic thought. When these guys get into a jam, they tend to get out of it by being smarter and quicker, not simply willing to expend more ammunition and amass a higher body count.
In a prologue that includes just about every modern Mexico movie cliché imaginable — corrupt cops, cackling mustachioed villains, sultry senoritas, and lavish usage of “gringo” (usually with more cackling) — Carnahan puts his team together with a couple nods to the world of the TV show and then gets down to business.
A quartet of Rangers specializing in the most special of ops, the best in the business of course, we meet up with them years later on a forward operating base in Iraq, on the day that the American military is finally pulling out of the country. They’re given one last mission, which ends up in them being framed for a crime they didn’t commit, leaving the four to clear their names by any means necessary. After this commercial for Doritos, and a brief appearance by 1980’s TV mainstay Gerald McRaney.
Carnahan gives each character their signature token, but doesn’t waste much time in slavish fealty to a TV show that aimed itself squarely at the pre-adolescent male demographic, with all the requisite downgrades in complexity and subtlety. B.A. Baracus (UFC fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, doing surprisingly credible work) has “PITY” and “FOOL” tattooed on his hands, and hates to fly. Murdoch (Sharlto Copley, playing Texan loony, but his South African accent clawing through repeatedly) has his very manageable looniness, and being a pilot, is provided numerous opportunities to infuriate B.A. Face (Bradley Cooper being Bradley Cooper) is the ladies’ man, pure and simple. Their leader, Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson, proving he can show up just about anywhere and make it worth your while), faces life with a lit stogie and sly grin, as one should.
The story that Carnahan and his co-screenwriters Skip Woods and Brian Bloom (who also has a nice role as a sarcastically amoral villain) whipped up here is nothing short of ridiculous, assigning nearly God-like powers to these Rangers on the lam. But it moves with a sure-footed, but not frantic, speed that doesn’t leave much time for such contemplation. Helping things along is the fact that so many of the people involved are clearly having the time of their lives, many scenes filled with nothing but light-hearted and inconsequential back-and-forth.
Hannibal, Face, and the rest crack so many smiles that you’d think serving in the U.S. Army was the most fun thing one could do with your life, while some of the villains chasing them — like the fantastically deadpan Patrick Wilson as Lynch, an untrustworthy CIA operative (is there any other kind?) — think it’s all a hoot as well. Lynch cracks to an Army intelligence officer (Jessica Biel, whose military wardrobe allotment allows for plenty of stylishly sleek black outfits) who gripes about how the CIA doesn’t have to play by the rules: “We’ve got rules. Ours are just cooler than yours.”
Though any hint of verisimilitude in a film like this is never expected or desired, Carnahan includes enough nods to his quartet’s Ranger esprit de corps that it makes their camaraderie that much more believable. The film also gets in a jab at private contractors, making their villains a band of gun-happy mercenaries from a Blackwater-like firm called Black Forest whom Hannibal sneers at: “You’re assassins in polo shirts.” It’s a telling line: Carnahan isn’t interested in just piling up more empty shell casings and dead extras, he’d rather put some heroic rogues up on the screen and watch them outwit and outthink everybody around them. That there isn’t a “surprise” here that the audience can’t see coming twenty minutes out doesn’t diminish the film (much). These guys fly tanks, after all.
Now if they could just get around to making a summer action franchise out of Simon & Simon…