Excuse me, I need to sit down, catch my breath and extinguish my singed eyebrows. I've just experienced The A-Team, a highly combustible concoction of testosterone, napalm and gunpowder, seasoned with cheesy comedy and served flambé.
In what feels like a tryout for the next Mission: Impossible directing job, Joe Carnahan has made the reboot of the 1980s TV series an excuse to blow up every vehicle, prop and backdrop in a four-mile radius. Maybe Carnahan should consider asking his doctor whether Ritalin is right for him. I could use a little myself right now.
For those of you who don't remember the show, no problem. The leading characters, four Army Rangers turned soldiers of fortune, are swiftly introduced and click into place as smoothly as Lego pieces.
Atop the command chain is Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), who likes Cuban cigars and plans, especially when they come together. His partners-in-havoc include B.A. Baracus (mixed martial artist Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), a rip-snortin' brawler, terrified of flying but quick to forgive the tricks that get him onto planes when pacified with food. Howling Mad Murdoch (Sharlto Copley) is the team's pilot, who often seems to be several landing gear short of a set. And Face (Bradley Cooper) is a prime hunk of T-bone, irresistible to women. That includes Army Capt. Sosa (a perfunctory Jessica Biel), assigned to capture the men who are, for reasons that hardly matter, on the run. (All right, they were framed for the disappearance of a counterfeiting mint in Iraq.)
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The lead actors range from OK (Jackson has a scary physicality but needs to take the marbles out of his mouth) to great. Copley, the breakout star of last year's sci-fi gem District 9, plays the nutty pilot with a collection of Rain Man tics that makes us wonder whether he's pretend-nuts or truly loco; his impromptu Braveheart speech is a thing of downright Shakespearean nuttiness. Cooper's narcissistic cocktail of charm and snark isn't as intoxicating as Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark, but he is buffed to frequently displayed perfection. And it's a shame to see a committed actor like Neeson doing a Bruce Willis-style toss-off role, but why shouldn't he enrich his golden years with easy parts and easier paychecks?
The film is a relentless, unapologetic, in-your-face barrage of special effects and virtuoso stunts that roars into action with the advance credits and rarely downshifts. It could just as easily have been called High Concept Action Film .753, so randomly are the set pieces churned out. Carnahan knows that if he throws thundering fists, slashing weapons and retina-searing explosions faster than our brains can download all the visual information, we won't quibble over issues of fidelity to the source material. The main benefit of basing The A-Team on a pre-existing series is that it comes partially assembled, with the character quirks already in place. That way we can get to the detonations faster.
And compelling cataclysms they are. One scene puts the good guys a mile in the air in a parachute drop-off tank, battling attack drones with the turret gun. Another has the heroes and a couple of villains rappelling, sliding and free-falling down the slopes of two ice-blue German skyscrapers amid a hail of artillery fire. It's all presented in the spirit of boys having fun. "Overkill is underrated," Neeson says as he prepares for a face-off in which his men will shoot fireworks-store Roman candles at their adversaries.
The villains of the piece are snide young punks representing the CIA and a private military company whom Neeson dismisses as "assassins in polo shirts." As with Iron Man 2 and Robin Hood, the film suffers from villain overload. Patrick Wilson plays Lynch, a smirking twerp from Langley, but the real menace oozes from Brian Bloom as his gun-for-hire subcontractor Pike, the smuggest, most overbearing triggerman in film history. In every scene he is the most interesting person onscreen. We probably aren't supposed to spend each moment that Lynch and Pike share wishing that Lynch would do something to force Pike to terminate him impassively and take over the main villain's role, but we do. The part's a caricature, but at least it's a wildly entertaining caricature. And Bloom seems to get the joke.
So do Carnahan and his merry crew. They tiptoe the tightrope of campy nostalgia but never quite slip into travesty. The team's old van makes a dramatic entrance and a comic exit; no one says "I pity the fool"; a couple of the TV series' stars pop up in brief cameos, as does a contemporary TV icon. All in all, it's satisfying B-movie nonsense. I have to admit, the plan came together.