Cherish this moment. There will never be a better movie combining Liam Neeson’s newfound badassery, Bradley Cooper’s bankable smarm, the appealing oddity of “District 9″‘s Sharlto Copley, and UFC champ Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s talent for the body slam. Plus: Jessica Biel.
As to the necessity of combining those things in the first place, there is none. Just as there is no reason to plumb the depths of decades-old television for movie properties. Yet here we are. The beauty of making “The A-Team” into a film is that it involves zero risk of masterpiece violation. It was just a dumb, fun, enthralling show for boys. And isn’t that what big-screen summers are for nowadays?
Depressingly, yes, but still it should be said that by tackling the inevitable movie update of the ’80s TV action-comedy, director Joe Carnahan, formerly of “Narc,” “Smokin’ Aces” and diminishing returns, has found a kind of professional stride. If the people he most needs to impress grew up irradiating themselves with episodic Reagan-era fantasies of quirky, righteous, benevolent aggression, so be it. It’s a Carnahan trademark, perhaps, to proceed from the conviction that even silliness deserves some earnestness.
Our stars compliantly assume their positions as the storied special-ops four-piece, here established in an origin-myth prologue as if they were trading cards: cardboard, collectible and precious. They all do fine with what they’re given. Jackson has the hardest part just on account of not being Mr. T. But he fits well into the master plan: We don’t really need to understand all that dialogue he drops; we just need to think, Wow, this guy’s so tough, he keeps rocks in his mouth.
Soon enough he and his pals find themselves, in the words of the old show’s narration, “sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.” Whereupon they devote themselves to breaking out, clearing their names and getting by in the meantime as mercenaries with hearts of gold. Notwithstanding one untrustworthy C.I.A. man (Patrick Wilson), their chief opponent seems to be a fellow dark operator (Brian Bloom) with a heart of much less expensive metal. “He’s a thug! He’s a cartoon character!” Neeson snorts, possibly quoting from script notes Carnahan and co-writers Skip Woods and Brian Bloom have received.
Undaunted, the team trots along from one violent yet curiously bloodless set piece to the next, enjoying each other’s company and abiding the twitchy incoherence of writing, camerawork and editing. “They specialize in the ridiculous,” Biel says of the boys at one point, and it is amusing to behold the lengths to which “The A-Team” goes just to subvert our received ideas about, say, physics and Gandhian philosophy.
Possibly this obfuscatory impulse is meant to conceal the greater obviousness of it all. Carnahan likes him some shell games, all right, and here he stages at least two of them, quite flamboyantly. Of course, there is a fine line between showmanship and contrivance — a line that even a movie based on a dumb, fun, enthralling show for boys can too easily cross. Disappointingly but not surprisingly, the only things that seem to come at all naturally to “The A-Team” are noisemaking and male chauvinism.