There was a time during my high school years when my family’s weekly rituals included two TV shows: “Knight Rider” and “The A-Team.” Twice a week we gathered on the sunroom couch around the box (yes, kids, TVs used to be shaped like boxes!) to see justice dispensed by a leather-jacketed David Hasselhoff and his talking Trans Am, and by four former Special Forces guys hiding out in the “Los Angeles underground.”
They were not, of course, good shows. I’m quite certain that the theme songs were better than the actual shows (same goes for “The Greatest American Hero,” “The Fall Guy,” “The Magilla Gorilla Show,” “Scooby Doo, Where Are You!” and who knows how many others). My memories of both shows are generic and hazy, with only a few specific set pieces and no actual plots standing out. It’s possible that if not for the intro voiceover, I might have forgotten by now that the A-Team supported themselves as freelance muscle, taking money to help people in trouble (of course they always helped the good guys). Looking at Wikipedia, I suddenly remember Melinda Culea’s feisty reporter Amy Allen being replaced by Marla Heasley’s glamour-puss Tawnia Baker, and how annoyed we all were by that. Wow, there’s a memory that’s lain undisturbed in some corner of my brain for about a quarter century.
What I do remember are the formulas: (a) our heroes staying one step ahead of the military police; (b) ingeniously (and implausibly) cobbling together specialized weapons and vehicles and such out of whatever happened to be at hand (apparently people with other viewing habits call this “MacGyvering,” but that MacGyver bloke got it from the A-Team); and of course (c) waging climactic battles in which thousands of bullets were spent, stuff was blown up, vehicles crashed and rolled, and no one was ever killed. Antagonists would emerge from wrecked cars or disabled tanks or whatever, shaking their heads groggily.
And, of course, the characters: audacious Hannibal, with his disguises and stogies, loving it when a plan comes together; pretty-boy Faceman, smooth-talking the ladies who always seemed to have whatever the team needed; gruff but tender-hearted B.A. Baracus, pitying the fool and not getting in no plane; and “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock in his baseball cap, hectoring B.A. with his schtick of the week. Looking back, I wonder if it wasn’t Murdock that most often made the show worth watching, since he was always doing something new.
The new movie, alas, is basically what you’d expect, by which I mean it’s a mess: chaotic, loud, overwrought, mindless, violent, visually incoherent — pretty much an archetypal example of everything that’s wrong with Hollywood today. Was the show this dumb? Does it matter? A movie’s job is not to live down to its source material. Certainly the filmmakers don’t try to recapitulate the show’s TV-style violence: Characters are savagely beaten, shot and murdered. Oh, and Faceman doesn’t just romance available women; in an opening sequence, he’s been captured by a bad guy in Mexico whom he has cuckolded (the wife is in the background in a bathrobe). “Well, she’s so hot,” he smirks to the angry thug, “and we both hate you, so…” Nice.
And yet it’s not entirely without moments of enjoyment. Its outsized set pieces show some gonzo imagination, recalling the spirit of Hannibal’s Rube Goldberg plans and the TV show’s weekly MacGyver moments (hey, no sense getting all tribal about pop-culture colloquialisms). There’s a sequence in Iraq involving a cargo container and a lot of airbags, and another involving a falling tank, that show creative panache going beyond standard-issue mindless action. Director Joe Carnahan makes some creative choices that pay off, including cutting back and forth between the team planning the op and actually carrying it out. Of course half the time the action is edited to heck, so you can’t tell what’s going on, which is par for the course these days.
The casting is surprisingly effective. Liam Neeson, following up his action-hero turn in Taken, is less blithe than I remember George Peppard, but he’s got a similar hardness and commanding presence, and he growls the famous line with conviction. (“The plan” here becomes at times an existential reality: “I don’t believe in chance,” Hannibal says at one point. “No matter how random things seem, there is still a plan.”)
District 9’s talented Sharlto Copley, intermittently hiding his South African accent with a Texas drawl, matches Dwight Schultz’s nuttiness with enjoyable aplomb, never more so than seguing from a Blue Man Group gag to a Braveheart riff. Perhaps the biggest surprise is mixed martial artist Quentin “Rampage” Jackson as the second coming of Mr. T; I totally accept him as B.A. Only Bradley Cooper seems miscast in a role that Dirk Benedict owned: Cooper’s too much testosterone and not enough suaveness.
In a word, the movie benefits from a genuine nostalgia for the TV show. This does not go without saying. Some TV show adaptations, such as The Dukes of Hazzard or The Brady Bunch Movie, seem to exude contempt or at best incomprehension regarding their source material. I like the freeze-frames in the opening intros, the snatches of the theme song and the unexpected ways in which the show’s heritage crops up, such as the two words B.A. has tattooed on the knuckles of each hand.
The A-Team is an origin story of sorts. Initially I found the opening disorienting, with the A-Team members all up to something or other in or near Mexico, but not all on the same page. In fact, they don’t all know each other. Then the movie fast-forwards to Iraq, with the whole team working together, and I realized they’re doing the whole “crime they didn’t commit” thing. The movie even explains the origins of B.A.’s fear of flying.
When all is said and done, the door is theoretically open to sequels in the mode of the TV show. The problem with this A-Team as origin story is much the same as the problem with the recent Robin Hood movie: The scale of the plot is so outsize that the heroes’ traditional adventures seem anticlimactic by comparison. After international intrigues over stolen U.S. Mint printing plates, battling the CIA and all, the A-Team is going to settle down to helping needy clients facing local bullies and such?
P.S. What is with the entirely gratuitous line in which a murderous Mexican thug laughing says “I’m such a bad Catholic”? Not that it’s not accurate, but why bring religion into it at all?
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.