“A crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…The A-Team.” That’s the opening narration from the original A-Team series, which aired on NBC for five seasons beginning in 1983. Joe Carnahan’s big-budget Hollywood version of The A-Team spent more than ten years in development, reportedly went through as many as 11 screenwriters, and it still takes an entire runtime to reach the same point in the story which this bit of voiceover communicates in three sentences, because the film wound up being an origin story (of course).
Carnahan’s The A-Team opens in Mexico, with Col. “Hannibal” Smith (Liam Neeson) and Lt. “Faceman” Peck (Bradley Cooper) attempting to pry themselves from a sticky situation involving a drug cartel that plans on setting them on fire and feeding them to starving dogs. During their escape, Hannibal and Faceman meet the other members of the titular team for the first time, and by blind chance: B.A. Baracus (Mixed Martial Arts fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson) and the mentally unstable Murdock (Sharlto Copley of District 9). The film then jumps ahead another eight years, to the waning days of the invasion of Iraq, where a mission to recover plates for Saddam Hussein’s counterfeit dollar operation goes wrong and lands our heroes in military prison. From there they must escape, team up with a mysterious CIA-connected hot babe (Jessica Biel), and try to get revenge on the bad guys who framed them in order to clear their names.
Once resolved, all of this plot (which bears a striking resemblance to this spring’s risible The Losers) brings premise and character to the exact point of that famous opening narration. The A-Team is a prequel to itself, composed entirely of the setup to the story. Like Iron Man 2 and The Last Airbender, this film is essentially exposition for further sequels that may or may not ever be made. In a way, that’s the only remarkable thing about the movie. Everything else is par for the course. The cast is game, especially Cooper who personifies Carnahan’s smug “look-how-awesome-we-are” sensibilities, and Patrick Wilson, who plays the shady, smarmy super-spook who sets up the good guys. The actors generally do a fine job ad-libbing wisecracks and finding room to make these generic action-movie characters rather endearing. And the action, when it ratchets up, is fittingly cartoonish and genuinely exciting — like that ridiculous scene in which the team “pilots” a tank dropped from an airplane.
But all the movie has in common with the original TV series are names and the basic premise. You could change the character names and the film’s title and you’d have pretty much any other action film. Muck it up really bad and you’d have The Losers. The A-Team doesn’t really bear any solid resemblance to the show, except that Jackson is afraid of flying (much like Mr. T) and Neeson repeatedly references his character’s signature catch phrase, “I love it when a plan comes together” (the only two things any normal teenager too young to have seen the series might have heard about). And that’s the bummer thing about The A-Team. That’s not to say that this should have or could have been some sort of summer action classic, but what we got was a run-of-the-mill product with a familiar name slapped onto it to make it easier to sell. It’s not like there’s a legacy to ruin here or anything–just another missed opportunity to lift exciting adventure filmmaking out of the crappy summer ghetto.