Monday, 2 August 2010

'A-Team' review: Big, loud, oh-so-silly fun...

I'll say right off: I've never seen an episode of the 'A-Team', the cult 1980's action series, so it not for me to say whether Joe Carnahan's new franchise re-boot movie is faithful to the spirit of the TV show. What I can say is that this new film, starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Sharlto Copley and Quinton Jackson as the titular group of vigilantes, was surprisingly enjoyable. In fact, whether I was laughing at the film or with it, I spent most of its running time with a silly grin on my face.

This is not to say that 'The A-Team' is an especially good movie. To start with, the politics of the thing are slightly dubious to say the very least, from the cartoon Mexicans at the beginning to the sleezy sexism of Cooper's character 'Face'. And the "moral" lesson learnt by B.A Baracus (Jackson) - that, as Walter Sobchak would say, "pacifism is nothing to hide behind" - is faintly disturbing. It is also true that Carnahan's direction is incoherent during the action scenes, with fast editing and a dizzying number of close-ups, and he treats the audience with very little respect offering a flashback every few minutes to help re-explain plot points and even who characters are. Oh, and the CGI is pretty ropey throughout (but especially at the end).

But despite these many flaws, 'The A-Team' is actually fairly good fun. The main reason for this is the central performers. Liam Neeson is great, chewing the scenery as Hannibal and lending the role gravitas, and 'District 9' star Sharlto Copley is excellent as Murdock, the ace pilot busted out of an insane asylum. Cooper is reliably charismatic. Quinton Jackson, a former UFC fighting champion, is the least absorbing of the four main actors, but at least he doesn't stray into an impression of Mr. T. Elsewhere in the cast, Patrick Wilson is entertaining as a duplicitous CIA operative and Brian Bloom does a decent job as a nasty mercenary solider. Jessica Biel is a forgettable, spare part as Cooper's love interest - but she is almost blameless: let's face it, 'The A-Team' isn't going to be packed with great female characters.

Another reason the film is watchable is that everything that happens is so darned over the top ("overkill is underrated"). When Hannibal explains one very, very silly plan to the team, one of his men responds "this is bat shit crazy!", to which the old man replies "it gets better!" These men relish the impossible. It is like that scene in 'The Fantastic Mr. Fox' where Mr. Fox suggests a daring and convoluted route through a farm, oblivious that there is a completely clear path nearby which goes safely around all the obstacles. The difficulty (or impossibility) is the fun part and soon you are watching a tank fall out of an exploding aeroplane and hearing someone in a control room is exclaim "they're trying to fly the tank!" Ridiculous, but quite brilliant all the same, and certainly never less than entertaining.

In terms of raw "dumbness" there is really little to separate this movie - and everything that happens in it - from one directed by Michael Bay. However, there is less genuine bravado on show here. Whether it is intentional or just a happy accident, 'The A-Team' feels more like a parody of bravado. Everyone is clearly insane, nothing that takes place makes sense and everything explodes - especially when it logically shouldn't. It is a colourful and exaggerated cartoon version of reality. Nothing that takes place is milked for cool. In fact, cool is more or less absent here. And as someone who detests cool, I mean that in a really good way.

'The A-Team' isn't going to win any awards. It isn't going to get a five star review from The Guardian or be christened Film of the Month by Sight and Sound. And nor should it. There is much to dislike and criticise about it. But in a world where I have to sit through the "worthy" likes of 'Leaving' on a weekly basis, I am pleased and refreshed to be able to see something so self-consciously stupid. I'll watch a fun cheesy film over a dull film any day of the week.

Is 'The A-Team' a work of art? Probably not. But I'm not going to sit here stroking my chin denying that I smiled from beginning to end. If you've seen 'Inception' and 'Toy Story 3' (both far superior films) already and want to sample some light, blockbustery fun: then maybe you can call... 'The A-Team'. Cue music.

'The A-Team' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is playing across the UK. You can hear Jon and I arguing about 'The A-Team' in our latest podcast.

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