The A-Team is a cynical film that only trusts the audience to follow the most simplistic plot, it arbitrarily switches tones, assuming no one will care.
Joe Carnahan's The A-Team arrives in cinemas with a certain amount of audience good will, thanks to its source material, which abides in TV reruns as a sort of repetitive guilty pleasure. Even so, the movie is undone by shoddy set pieces and a showy disregard for basic dramatic building blocks.
With a plot loosely connected to the war in Iraq, The A-Team offers the usual allegiances and betrayals amongst the American military, a shadowy security organization called Black Forest, and the CIA. But none of this plot or the film's attempts to preserve the series' fun characters and catchphrases distracts from its episodic, tonally dissonant, and visually incoherent physical action.
Carnahan and fellow screenwriters Brian Bloom and Skip Woods do away with the series' Vietnam War back story, instead introducing the team in a protracted credits-sequence adventure in Mexico. That's about as much geopolitical context as the film provides, identifying its international locations (all shot in Vancouver) as: "Somewhere in Mexico," "Somewhere Else in Mexico," and "Somewhere in Europe." The lack of context extends to characters, most significantly "The Arab." A CIA agent named Lynch (Patrick Wilson) describes "the Arab" only as "deep" and "dark." While his anonymity and mystery ostensibly motivate a completely unsurprising reveal, in fact it is undermined by his utter lack of definition.
Some of this vagueness would be tolerable if the film also displayed a self-aware sense of humor. Successful parodies of action films adhere thrillingly to familiar generic principles even as they point out their absurdities. Actors such as Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger blended comedy and action into legitimate blockbuster entertainment. The A-Team, on the other hand, aims to be a straight action/comedy hybrid rather than a comedy about action, with mostly middling results. Whether drones are shooting down the team's aircraft or they're attempting to navigate a tank falling from the sky into a lake, the teammates indiscriminately offer up nonsensical banter, or worse, B.A. Baracus' (Quinton Jackson) many variations on "This is gonna be bad."
Occasionally, the hybrid formula works: on his introduction, we learn that Hannibal (Liam Neeson) tries to avoid unnecessary violence. When his Mexican torturers (who predictably call him "the Gringo") leave him in a room with two attack dogs, he cleverly handcuffs them to each other, then watches them walk away in a state of confusion. Another standout scene finds the arguably insane Murdock (Sharlto Copley) committed to an Army Psychiatric Hospital in Germany. The A-Team helps him to escape with a maneuver that is both genuinely surprising and gleefully satirizes the current 3D trend, while also paying homage to the Lumière's The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station!
Unfortunately, the majority of The A-Team does not achieve such complexity. A cynical film that only trusts the audience to follow the most simplistic plot, it arbitrarily switches tones, assuming no one will care. The absence of transitions between one-note scenes leads to a confusing viewing experience wherein foolhardy antics coexist with patriotically scored dialogue that literally amounts to reciprocated expressions of "What Would Gandhi Do?"
While many summer action films have overcome (or covered over) similar script problems with brilliant action choreography or visual effects, The A-Team falls short here too. More than 200 people are credited with visual effects work, but the cinematography and editing are only frenetic. A couple of sequences intercut two or three separate scenes, scrambling and stunting the rising action. Elsewhere, unnecessary dips to black and percussive sounds on cuts can't mask fundamental discontinuities. Most significantly, combat sequences are difficult to follow because the chaotic shooting and rapid editing obscure the geography and character positions.
It's possible The A-Team's cartoonish and jumbled combat, and especially its diminished consequences, are a function of its PG-13 rating. Punches and head-butts compete with bullets, and exploding vehicles conveniently stay out of frame after the fire has made its eye-popping impact. Of course, none of this produces visible corpses. But even if an "R" might open up a chance to show violence more realistically, the rest of the movie is so suffused with illogical and counterproductive choices it's doubtful that a harder version would be any more coherent.