Sunday, June 13, 2010

Review: The A-Team (dir. Joe Carnahan)

"One year ago, an elite commando unit was sent to prison for a crime they didn't commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum security facility. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers for hire. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire...The A-Team."

So goes the updated introduction featured in advertising materials for the film. It's a great introduction. Really. It tweaks the original in just the right ways, updating some of the language and omitting the right things (like the term "the Los Angeles underground"). So my question do you screw it up this badly? Let's find out after the jump...

The film is a structural mess. The pacing is just relentless, but not in a way that makes any sense. In The Dark Knight, the relentless pace represented the unstoppable force of evil (or chaos, as you like). The A-Team is paced more like an overactive five-year-old who's really excited to see you - he's bouncing all over the room, trying desperately to explain how cool all his stuff is, and it'd sort of make sense except he never...stops...moving. Except that would make The A-Team kind of cute and charming, which it really, really is not.

The A-Team represents the current trend (and I fear the future) of franchise-starters. It feels like a two-part pilot for a television show, and its two-act structure is built exactly for it. The first hour gets the team together and sets up the premise for the show (in this case, the above introduction) and the second hour sets the team on their first mission, typically one related in some way to their origin (in this case, the people who set them up). There's nothing cinematic about the storytelling here, if storytelling could be said to take place (when two of your characters come together through what one of them declares to be "fate," you know that's a screenwriter giving themselves an out for rampant coincidence).

The thing is, I'd be willing to roll with this if the film worked on its own terms - action and personality. Now, granted, the actors have personality to spare (with the exception of Jessica Biel, but she's saddled with being the woman in a summer blockbuster, and that's no fun for anyone), and Liam Neeson's Hannibal and Bradley Cooper's Face have genuine chemistry, but everyone else is rowing their own boat here. Sharlto Copley, fresh off some fairly awesome work in the fairly impressive District 9, is way more committed to playing Murdock's "crazy" than makes any sense here, and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson is fairly flat all around, nailing only the occasional line. He's also saddled with being the only one with an arc, and that's a rough place to be when you're playing the role originated by Mr. T.

The action, however, is just awful. Every set piece, until the final showdown, which has its own problems, is structured exactly the same, and plays terribly familiarly. Or at least I think so. Director Joe Carnahan, who did awesome action work on the balls-out fun that is Smokin' Aces, seems to have lost all capacity for shooting or editing action here. And it's not simply the now-tired use of the handheld camera; I can roll with shaky-cam all day long. I have no trouble following the frequently-derided work of Christopher Nolan or Paul Greengrass. Carnahan's is just sloppy, and he seems to know it. Why else would you frequently turn to one character or another to actually explain the action as it is happening?

The A-Team left me feeling bad not just for the time spent watching it, but for the concept of the action film in general. I love action films deeply, and think they have a very relevant, important place in cinematic language and culture, but this year and last have offered up very little in the way of adding to this cause (thought 2012 and Sherlock Holmes came close).


Unknown said...

I actually found myself really enjoying The A-Team, despite myself. I felt the same way about Smokin' Aces. It was just hyper-entertaining, even if there wasn't a living brain cell in the entire production.

The tank scene might be one of my favorites of the year. It just embraces it's joyful, almost exuberant retardation in a way you just don't see very often in films these days. That sense of self-awareness won me over.

Scott Nye said...

The tank scene is, admittedly, really inspired stuff on all the levels you noted. And don't get me wrong, I LOVE Smokin' Aces (and Narc, for that matter), and mostly I just wish this had more of that sort of attitude.

But in the end, it doesn't really - the characters aren't nearly as electric, and the tank scene aside, the action isn't as much fun, and needlessly obscured. Especially after seeing Knight and Day (which, seriously, if you want to see some joyful, exuberant shit, get thee to it), in which the action is shot very smoothly and edited in a way that makes any God damn sense while still being kinetic and exciting, the formal flaws of The A-Team were brought all the more to the light of day.