It’s about time. I mean, really. We are all of us trapped in a weird moment right now, a cultural moment that isn’t remotely friendly to the red-blooded American male. We’re being battered by Sex And The City and Twilight, by American Idol and Glee, by Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and the Black-Eyed Fucking Peas. [This review is rated R for general audiences.]
Entertainment Weekly, the leading movie magazine in America (if only by default), just put out a list of “The 100 Greatest Characters Of The Last 20 Years!” Vic Mackey from The Shield, one of the best, most brutal, most compelling, and most morally compromised characters ever to appear on television or anywhere else, somehow managed to make the list, thankfully. However. Here are some of the characters who these ladies ranked higher than Vic Mackey (at #61):
Harry Potter. Rachel Green from Friends. Carrie Bradshaw from Sex In The City. Spongebob Squarepants. Shrek. Bridget Jones. Lara Croft (a videogame). Sue Sylvester from Glee. Ally McBeal. Felicity. Frasier. Madea. Cher from Clueless. Stewie Griffin from Family Guy. Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. Pearl The Landlord (a baby). Edward Cullen from Twilight. Juno. Master Chief (a videogame).
American culture is in need of an immediate testosterone injection.
Joe Carnahan and The A-Team are here to administer it.
Listen, I’m not making any argument for the cinematic excellence of the new A-Team movie. It’s loud and haphazard and often unclear and probably a little too lengthy for what it is. But it serves a need. Like its four main characters have a habit of doing, the movie showed up right in the nick of time. It’s big dumb fun for guys. It eases the conscience a little to know that it’s dumb fun made by smart people.
Joe Carnahan is a guy whose work I’m interested in. I think that Narc is a solid throwback of a crime flick, and Smokin’ Aces is a seriously fascinating but seriously flawed take on the modern action flick. I think I get what Carnahan was up to with Smokin’ Aces, what with the political overtones and the commentary on violence embedded in what was an ultraviolent romp. I don’t think it worked in the end, but I respect the hell out of the attempt, and I’ve been eagerly awaiting his next movie ever since.
The A-Team, as a whole, is more in line with the first half of Smokin’ Aces (before it takes a turn for the serious). There is nothing serious about The A-Team. It frankly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s the glory of chaos. The main plot of the movie is driven by the team’s efforts, after “being imprisoned for a crime they didn’t commit,” to track down some dollar plates to thwart a potential counterfeiting mega-conspiracy, but I’ll be damned if I could really follow it, or if I cared to. You come to a movie like this for the characters and for the action, and in those respects my thirst was quenched.
Quick disclaimer: I don’t remember the original TV series all that well. I haven’t seen an episode in maybe twenty years, since I was a kid. I do remember Hannibal, Face, B.A., and Murdock. That indicates to me that they’re good characters, whether or not they’re the most profound works of fiction in the world. It’s a good mix of types, and the movie would need a good mix of actors to be worthwhile. I think they got it right.
In the A-Team movie, Hannibal is played by Liam Neeson, which would ordinarily bring gravity to the insanity, but not in this case. Neeson came to play. While he has his hair dyed gray so that he comes off as a little older and wiser than the other three, he’s otherwise just as devil-may-care as any of them. Fans of Neeson’s performance in Sam Raimi’s Darkman will be pleasantly surprised, and rewarded. Meanwhile, The Hangover’s Bradley Cooper plays the Faceman, and if there was a difference between his character there and here, I’m not sure I caught it. Nor am I complaining. Cooper’s energy fits just right with the hyperactive tone of the movie.
Then there’s MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, in the immortal role first essayed by Mr. T, of B.A. Baracus, the team’s wheelman. Rampage isn’t exactly an artisan with the English language, but he’s an artisan when it comes to shitkicking and he gets plenty of opportunity to get that done. He’s also playing the only character who gets anything close to what the screenwriting how-to’s call “an arc.” The grizzled veteran and the romantic lead don’t get more than one note to play, but the gigantic MMA fighter has a dramatic arc. That’s just so perversely hilarious that I have to love this movie.
Lastly, there’s Howlin’ Mad Murdock, played here by District 9’s Sharlto Copley in a performance that is the spitting image of Spike Jonze’s in Three Kings. Remember that one? Not the greatest redneck accent, not the most convincing in the few dramatic moments he gets, but impish and even childishly charming, particularly in his interplay with the other characters. It’s a fun follow-up to an underrated performance in a far greater movie. (District 9 is so damn good.) The funny thing to me is that Murdock is supposed to be the crazy one, and the other three characters constantly treat him as such, but the truth is – they’re all crazy! All four members of the A-Team seem to be entirely insane. They’re Looney Tunes. Literally. They’re Bugs and Daffy.
I think that’s why I liked the movie so much. Everybody’s having fun, and the audience is invited. Poor Jessica Biel has the thankless role as the A-Team’s humorless pursuer, although she brings an impressive Sigourney Weaver toughness to it. She’s mostly just left reacting to the wackiness of the main guys, but the movie needs a straight man and she handles it well. And if there’s going to be a straight man, it might as well be a pretty lady. Watchmen’s Patrick Wilson fares a little better as the shady CIA guy who sets the plot in motion – even he gets the chance to cut loose and be funnier than he ever was in Little Children. Everybody gets a chance at the spotlight in this movie – it’s the most democratic action spectacle I’ve seen in a while.
Maybe I’m being a hypocrite – I don’t know why I knock on big dumb brainless action movies but I’m speaking so well of this one – but then again, maybe I’m on to something. What’s different about The A-Team is the Carnahan factor. For one thing, Carnahan knows how to shoot action. He’s into rapid-fire editing like most other action filmmakers, but unlike many of them, he knows how long to hold a shot so that the audience’s orientation is clear. Even when I couldn’t follow the details of the plot, I could tell who was doing what, and to whom, in every single action scene.
From the results in front of me, I have to assume that Carnahan took this job not for any cynical reason, but because it looked like fun. If I’m not mistaken, he himself jumps in for a quick cameo and casts his own dad as one of the officials who sends the A-Team to prison, and gives his co-writer, Brian Bloom, a significant role as the A-Team’s mercenary adversary. (He’s good, too!) I get the sense that everybody making this movie was having fun, and wanted to make an entertaining movie for an audience who could use some fun right about now, and that does separate it from the majority of the big dumb action movies that we’re usually being forced to watch.
And best of all, at no point during The A-Team does anybody break into fucking dance.