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The A-Team: Who are the bad guys? What's the plot? Does it matter?

The A-Team in action: (from left) Face (Bradley Cooper), Murdock (Sharlto Copley), Hannibal (Liam Neeson) and B.A. (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson).

Doug Curran

2 out of 4 stars



  • Directed by Joe Carnahan
  • Written by Joe Carnahan, Brian Bloom, Skip Woods
  • Starring Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper, Jessica Biel
  • Classification: PG

Working on the unassailable assumption that trite makes right, The A-Team starts with a travelling shot across a vast expanse of land, perhaps the most repeated opening gambit in the annals of movies. Of course, speaking of repetitive, the picture itself is one more iteration of a fail-safe ploy: Disinter a pop TV series with brand recognition (the eighties are a favourite digging ground these days), and trust that the revival's demographic appeal will include the aging original viewers plus, with a few updates, the younger crowd too. Can't lose - trite makes right, and then it makes money.

From there, the casting is a no-brainer. Pity the foo' who can't see the design in this cross-section: The veteran Liam Neeson captains the Team, a solid actor hired to reassure the grey-beards in the audience; handsome Bradley Cooper, fresh off his box-office killing in The Hangover, flutters hearts in the lothario role; Sharlto Copley is the wacky loose cannon in the mix, his face (if not name) recognizable from his outing in the popular and Oscar-nominated District 9; and, in the Mr. T slot, another recruit from the ring, a certain Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, guaranteed to tickle the youthful fancy of all those UFC fans. As for the female eye-candy, hey, Jessica Biel will do.

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Now for the updates. Back in the day, the Team's quartet of crack Army Rangers got unjustly framed for some ill-doing in Vietnam. Here it's Iraq - update complete. And the storyline? Something about stolen engraving plates and bundles of counterfeit cash but, truly, the plot is incomprehensible for the obvious reason that, in this genre, plot has become irrelevant - it's just a cheap clothesline on which to hang the expensive action. Consequently, the villains are opaque too. Far as I can make out, the A-listers are fighting other rogue elements within the U.S. defence establishment, like private contractors and ever-shady CIA types. In a politically polarized era when America's greatest enemy is itself, such internecine warfare might have been interesting - if only it were decipherable.

On to the bantering comedy, those programmed respites of calm between the stormy outbursts. Actually, this is almost a strength. Cooper has an affable way of mugging to the camera, so does Patrick Wilson as that CIA lout, and Copley is a veritable vocal chameleon, adroit at instantly switching accents and tossing off extemporized asides. The problem is director Joe Carnahan, who's way too manic even when the formula calls for calm - he can't stay still long enough to drive home the punch-lines.

Which brings us to the action - helicopters chasing bigger helicopters, a full-sized tank parachuting from a massive cargo plane, huge shipping containers stacked like Lego and toppling like dominoes, all of it chaotic and confusing and weirdly static (yes, exactly like the plot). Yet maybe, just maybe, the ugliness is deliberate. The conventional aesthetic says that a great action director, a John Woo or a Tarantino, wields the camera gracefully through the sequence to thrilling kinetic effect. The film speeds up but with a clear-eyed elegance, like an elite athlete accelerating with purpose and control.

But the action scenes here, and in countless similar movies, have exactly the opposite result: Shot in jagged, close-up, disorienting shards, they stop the film dead in its tracks. Instead of acceleration, there's stasis; instead of purpose, confusion; instead of thrills, noise. Yet surely Carnahan and his kind can't be that incompetent. Perhaps this is just a different aesthetic, where disorientation is the goal, where the action flick is no longer an escape from reality but an exaggeration of it, not a retreat from the fragmentation and noise of the information age but its explosive echo.

If so, then Cooper's character is bang-on when he reiterates his strategy to foil the bad guys: "Distraction, diversion, division." Measured by that standard, The A-Team merits an A-plus. In which case, to the old box-office maxim that trite makes right, a fresh corollary must be attached: Chaos is the new order, and ugly the new beautiful.

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Film critic

Rick Groen is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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