If the first of this week’s ‘80s-derived summer blockbusters, The Karate Kid, wrestles with the question of how to honor the memory of a beloved cult movie, the second one, The A-Team (20th Century Fox) faces a very different problem. How do you justify revisiting a 25-year-old TV show that was pretty much disposable junk from the get-go? Let’s face it: Whatever fond memories of the series any of us might have probably have less to do with the show itself than with the self-mocking kitsch it engendered during its run. I vividly recall a friend’s Mr. T talking keychain that alternated between two of the Mohawk-sporting behemoth’s catchphrases: “I pity the fool” and “Don’t make me mad.”
Still, The A-Team has everything a production team bereft of original content could ask for: nostalgic value, widely recognizable protagonists drawn in cartoonishly broad strokes, and a pretext for extracting a maximum of action from a minimum of plot. The whole point of The A-Team was to deliver a ridiculously outsized finale: Each week, the four titular soldiers of fortune escaped from whatever warehouse they found themselves trapped in by jerry-rigging a vehicle with explosives and barreling through billowing fireballs to PG-rated safety. (With rare exceptions, none of the show’s bad guys were killed or seriously harmed.) The A-Team played as if scripted by two 8-year-old boys banging their action figures together: “Pow!” “Kablammo!” “Curses!” “Victory!” In its better moments, the film version captures the goofy energy of juvenile commandos at play; at its worst, it’s as if the 8-year-olds got final cut.
In this updating, the foursome are no longer Vietnam veterans framed for “a crime they didn’t commit” but Army Rangers working for a Special Forces unit in Baghdad framed for a crime they still didn’t commit. In what’s become franchise-reboot orthodoxy, The A-Team begins as an origin story, with the man who will become the ringleader, Col. Hannibal Smith (Liam Neeson), rounding up former rangers for his team. B.A. Baracus (Quinton “Rampage” Jackson), the driver, provides the muscle. Templeton “Face” Peck (Bradley Cooper) is the handsome sweet-talker whose way with the ladies gets him alternately into and out of trouble. And H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock (Sharlto Copley), the team’s pilot, is not just a daredevil but a certified madman—he must be liberated from a military asylum in order to join the team.
Shortly after arriving in Iraq, the boys are unfairly blamed for—I believe I have this right—colluding in a counterfeiting scheme to print American dollars at the Iraqi mint. They’re placed in custody, escape spectacularly, and spend the rest of the movie on the run from a smarmy CIA agent (Patrick Wilson) and a military investigator (Jessica Biel), who’s also Face’s ex-girlfriend. Anything else I say about the plot will probably be wrong, because all exposition is hastily shouted over the din as the team skims across a lake in a speedboat or hurtles toward earth in an airborne tank suspended from a parachute. (Why was the tank on a plane in the first place? See above, re: 8-year-olds.)
That scene with the plummeting tank is so ridiculous that it does achieve a kind of glory, defying the laws of physics with the logic of a Wile E. Coyote stunt. And I’ll admit to loving Liam Neeson’s late-career makeover as an action hero. He seems as at home here as he seemed in Taken; with his imposing bulk and hammerheadlike jutting brow, you can believe him as the it’s-so-crazy-it-just-might work brains behind the operation. Not many actors can loom menacingly and twinkle at the same time.
Unlike the series, this movie racks up a ruthless body count, especially during a massively scaled and supremely incoherent showdown in a port stacked high with shipping containers. The brutality is briefly, and absurdly, cut short when Baracus has a spiritual crisis in jail and resolves never to take another human life. But Hannibal soothingly demonstrates how the works of Mahatma Gandhi can be read as both con and pro on the killing issue, and the action resumes.
Directed and co-written by Joe Carnahan, the two-bit Tarantino who made Narc and Smokin’ Aces, The A-Team seems to have been made with enthusiasm, if not craft. Scooping up The A-Team as a property worthy of updating may have been a cynical move on the part of the producers (who include, among others, Tony and Ridley Scott), but they found a director whose breathless, hyperkinetic style is, for better or worse, suited to the material. Like Cooper’s lady-killing character, Face, The A-Team is utterly convinced of its own lovability even as it strains our credibility, abuses our patience, and punishes our eardrums.
The idea of turning a less-than-legendary series like The A-Team into a movie scrapes pretty close to the bottom of the remake barrel. Can you scrape even lower? For this year’s Slate Summer Movies contest, send me your elevator pitches for a film franchise based on an ‘80s TV show. Casting, plot synopsis, tag line, whatever you think will sell your movie. Keep it short—just one sentence—and send the results to firstname.lastname@example.org by midnight on Tuesday, June 15. I pity the fool who … oh, never mind.